Reviewed by Joelene Pynnonen
Philosophy and the deeply personal collide in this memoir about running away from your life and finding yourself.
When her mother passes away, Diane Meyer Lowman finds herself cast adrift. Her two sons are on the cusp of adulthood, navigating their burgeoning lives on their own. Diane is left with no one left to look after her and no one for her to look after either. Her mother’s penultimate words stick with her though; “I wish you would start your life.” As a grown woman, Diane feels she has a life. She’s college educated, had a business career; she just swapped it for motherhood.
But her life so far has been spent fulfilling the dreams of others. So Diane returns to an old love, one that she had never been able to fully pursue before: Shakespeare. Packing up her life in Connecticut, she enrolls in an M.A. program at the Shakespeare Institute in the Bard’s birthplace, Stratford Upon Avon. Alone in a foreign country, she discovers that even as an adult, there’s so much more she can learn about herself.
The Undiscovered Country is a short memoir about following Shakespeare, but it’s also an overview of her life and the events that shaped it. Lowman has a unique, yet relatable way of writing that can catch you unaware.
“Sometimes I would keep researching because it meant I didn’t have to start writing. Mounds of notes accrued, like grocery bags full of ingredients heaped on the counter, waiting to become a gourmet meal with nary a cookbook or recipe in sight.”
Passages like the one above abound. Rich and lush in description, but so thoroughly applicable to most people’s lives. Much like her time studying, Diane pours 100% of herself into this memoir. She delves into music, theater, philosophers, writers, and history to paint a complete picture of who she is and how she thinks.
There’s a strong philosophical element to The Undiscovered Country. Diane questions her actions and circumstances, often turning to writers or her past for answers. One of the most interesting questions she asks is, why work? She’s already done her time at college, as a mother, in a career. She could rest. Instead, she throws herself into the challenge of studying the most famous literary figure in the world. Pouring over the primary texts, refining a thesis, researching, writing.
The consistently recurring theme through Undiscovered Country is finding a place in the community when one’s circumstances have changed. In this case, it’s not the bildungsroman of youth, looking to embark on a fresh new journey into the world. It’s the more disquieting situation of someone who has lived through one part of their life and found themselves stranded at the end of it. No parents to look after and children now grown. There’s a delicate, underlying grief in this memoir. Not so strong that it chokes you, more a pervasive sense of being lost.
The Undiscovered Country is wonderfully written in general, but at times it feels sparse. Certain ideas aren’t unpacked, some people aren’t properly introduced, and some words or acronyms aren’t explained. Occasionally, there’s the feeling of being dropped into a section mid-scene where the much-needed set-up is missing. Most of this can be understood in the context of the narrative or by reading further, but it does create a feeling of confusion at the time.
The Undiscovered Country is a fascinating look at the experiences of an older student in a foreign country and the social landscape of a divorced mother of adult children. For such a short piece, it packs several punches. Both the writing and the thoughts behind it are crisp and often beautifully expressive. Whether you’re a Shakespeare afficionado or not, this is a worthy read.
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