Seattleite Molly Wizenberg had one bestselling memoir published at age 30 and another at 35, so fans might reasonably think they knew something about the writer’s life. To be fair, Wizenberg thought she knew the basics, too: Restaurant owner, heterosexual, happily married.
It was all true, she writes in her new memoir, “The Fixed Stars” — until it wasn’t.
In 2015, a summons to jury duty catalyzed a new life for Wizenberg and a new identity as a queer woman. In the shorthand summary, this anti-fairy tale is about sexual orientation and fluidity. But it goes broader and deeper, drilling into gender roles, motherhood and marriage, who we are and how we take control of our lives.
That sounds like a heavy read, but Wizenberg’s intimate storytelling makes the book as likely to be optioned for a Hollywood romance as listed on the syllabus of a women’s studies class. Speaking of movies, her prose is a virtual-reality generator, projecting IMAX-sharp memories suffused with sensory details. Many readers (hand raised!) will alternate between wincing in sympathy and self-interrogating their own choices in relationships and parenting.
Some of Wizenberg’s story is familiar to readers of her Orangette website, one of the first and best-loved food blogs, and of her earlier books, “A Homemade Life” and “Delancey.” A Francophile with a bachelor’s degree in human biology, she started the blog after quitting a Ph.D. program in cultural anthropology. She met Brandon Pettit, a graduate student in music composition, through Orangette and became “quietly crazed with love for him, the way a ceramic bowl is crazed with fine cracks and lines.”
The 20-somethings were engaged within a year. They opened the acclaimed Seattle pizzeria Delancey, later adding cocktail bar Essex, Dino’s Tomato Pie, and (most importantly), their beloved daughter, June.
“We wanted to be kind. We each wanted the other to be happy. We were good at encouraging each other, whether or not we really wanted the outcome in question,” she wrote.
Restaurants had been Pettit’s dream, not Wizenberg’s — full disclosure, I consider both acquaintances and have a weakness for Delancey’s chocolate chip cookies — and she eventually stepped back from the kitchen. The lonely juggle of modern parenting added to the strain.
Even so, Wizenberg was shaken on jury duty to find herself electrified by Nora, a female defense attorney. The impact is desperately sad from the start, when open-minded Pettit says that “nobody’s totally straight, right?” and asks if she needs to explore the obsession.
“I’m afraid if I do, I’ll burn down our marriage,” she replied, and heard him start to cry.
They open their marriage, which gets awkward with their employees. She dates while investigating the science and culture behind sexual preferences, and whether they can change. Bits of knowledge are scattered like a breadcrumb trail, some explained and some tossed out in passing, from the acronym used to classify French adjectives to the paper-scroll artwork of Carolee Schneemann.
Wizenberg eventually comes to terms with her sexuality, though she writes that there’s some relief in admitting how little she knows. Her issues are about autonomy and responsibility as much as sex, though. It’s a coming-of-age story, if you can have that with a 36-year-old protagonist.
“You don’t get to tell me who I am,” she tells Pettit in one decisive scene. And when he offers to sell the businesses, move anywhere, do anything to make her happy, she knows not just that she shouldn’t accept, but that for his own sake he shouldn’t offer.
If I wished for any changes, it’s that Wizenberg had waited longer before writing the book. The relationship that develops in the last section feels it doesn’t get its fair weight. Still, that just makes this memoir — like its predecessors — a snapshot in time. “A Homemade Life” and “Delancey” would look different too if smoothed out through the lens of hindsight. That doesn’t make them untrue.
Wizenberg uses celestial and chemical references for her journey: the fixed stars of the title are Brandon and June, the guideposts through which she thought she could identify her own place in the universe. The guts of the book, though, feel more geological and sculptural. It’s as if Wizenberg is chipping away, with great effort and love and skill, to reveal her own new form.
“The Fixed Stars” by Molly Wizenberg, Abrams Press, 256 pp., $25
Molly Wizenberg will speak about “The Fixed Stars” with Kate Schatz on Tuesday, Aug. 4, at 6 p.m., hosted virtually by Elliott Bay Book Company (register at eventbrite.com); she’ll join her Spilled Milk Podcast co-host Matthew Amster-Burton at 5 p.m., Aug. 6, for a Zoom discussion hosted by Book Larder (register at booklarder.com).