Olivia Laing calls Jean Hannah Edelstein, author of the memoir, This Really Isn’t About You, ‘one of the most brilliant writers of her generation.’ This, her second book, revolves around her father’s death from cancer, and discovering six months afterwards that she had inherited the gene for Lynch syndrome, which causes many different kinds of cancer to form.
Edelstein, who was thirty-two at the time, moved back to the United States in 2014, when she was told her father was dying from lung cancer. Up until this point, she had spent her entire adult life abroad, and was settled in London, where she worked as a freelance journalist, supplementing her passion for writing with temporary office jobs. Six weeks after she arrives back at home, and almost simultaneous to her renting an apartment in New York City, her father passes away: ‘I was in Brooklyn looking for love on OKCupid when my father died.’
She goes on to reveal: ‘That night in February, I had a rare feeling of contentment, or something like it… I was beginning to feel like it might be time to build my real life in America… Maybe my life was almost under control.’ She reflects here on her father’s death in the family home in Baltimore: ‘My father tried to eat dinner, and then he told my mother that he was really not feeling well, and then he stood up from the easy chair where he had been spending most of his days for the last few weeks, and then he collapsed and died on the wooden floor in the space between the dining area and the family room.’
Edelstein begins her memoir by writing about her family history; she does this with humour and love. She discusses, in part, her Jewish father’s relationship with his faith: ‘As far as I know, the ways in which my father was Jewish were mostly food ways: he ate briny fish and cold beet soup from jars. Pumpernickel bagels, grainy dark breads. My father drank little alcohol – Jews don’t really drink, he’d say, which was maybe less of a fact than a rumour – and he avoided pork products. When pressed, he claimed it was less a fear of God than a fear of trichinosis.’ Amongst other elements, she talks of summer holidays spent with her Scottish grandmother in rainy Dumfries, moving to London for graduate school, and falling in and out of love.
Finding out that she had the gene for Lynch syndrome was, as one would expect, difficult to come to terms with. Her siblings and cousin, when they were tested, were found to be clear of the gene. Edelstein is convinced, however, from the moment at which her father suggests that she goes to see her doctor, that she carries it: ‘… I had decided not to get tested while Dad was alive. I couldn’t imagine telling him that I had the thing that was killing him.’ She goes on to explain: ‘My father had been dead for six months before I was brave enough to go and get the test. I was no longer in a state of deepest grief. I didn’t cry every day any more. Just some of them.’
Lynch syndrome is a gene mutation, which around 1 in 400 people carry: ‘It’s found in all kinds of people, but in particular it’s found in people who can trace their origins to certain “founder populations”. Folks who built families with people like them. People from Finland. People from Iceland. French-Canadians. The Amish. Ashkenazi Jews.’ Following her own diagnosis, Edelstein was forced to confront some incredibly tough questions about both her present and her future: ‘How do we cope with grief? How does living change when we realize we’re not invincible?’
This Really Isn’t About You has been variously described as heartbreaking, filled with hope, and ‘disarmingly funny’. I found it to be all of these things; it is a rich memoir, full and quite revealing at times. I enjoyed her brand of humour, which tends to be quite dry and sarcastic. Edelstein’s authorial voice is consistently warm and candid, and a real pleasure to read, despite the more difficult scenes which she has described. Her writing feels like a cathartic exercise; she has to come to terms with so much, and is open about it all to her audience. Edelstein’s tone, and her intelligent and measured prose, coupled with the substance of the memoir, makes This Really Isn’t About You both an easy, and very difficult, book to read.