book review: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson


THE ARGONAUTS by Maggie Nelson
Graywolf Press, 2015

I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to read Maggie Nelson, but I was starting to worry that The Argonauts couldn’t possibly live up to its extensive hype. I was also skeptical when this memoir quite literally opened with a paragraph about anal sex – I think I sighed and thought ‘oh, this is going to be one of those books.’ I feel like this is a category of book that both novels and memoirs can fall into: the ones that think sex is this shocking, scandalous thing, that want to prove to their reader how daring they are for graphically depicting such a ‘taboo’ subject, that mistake vulgarity for profundity and bravery, but which are written so awkwardly you just end up cringing.

And I can see where for some readers, The Argonauts might end up being that kind of book. But Nelson won me over. There is a searing honesty to her prose that’s an undeniable force in this memoir, and it’s hard to put it down once it sucks you in. Nelson’s sentence construction is striking, and her observations on love and sexuality are all poignant. While Nelson’s perspectives are often heavily rooted in academia, the personal, emotional slant never fades. This is also one of the most candid, unapologetic memoirs I think I’ve ever read – though it isn’t self-deprecating in tone, Nelson never spares herself from her own commentary and conclusions. It’s just refreshingly human.

I wouldn’t dream of attempting to level this against The Argonauts as any kind of objective criticism, but I still have to mention it to explain why I dropped the 5th star from my rating: I’m tired of motherhood books. It’s a subject that doesn’t particularly intrigue me to begin with, and I feel like I’ve been reading quite a few novels and memoirs lately that reflect on motherhood. I’m just tired of it. The parts of The Argonauts that focused on Nelson’s pregnancy were the least interesting to me, and I kept wishing that the focus would stay on her relationship with Harry. But that’s entirely a personal preference, and I fully intend to check out Nelson’s other works in the near future.

13 thoughts on “book review: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

  1. I love her juxtaposition of the personal and the academic so very much. But I also just LOVE books about motherhood, especially memoirs, so this was always going to work for me maybe better than for you. (I remember only giving it 4 stars when I read it but that might be different if I read it now.)
    Btw I am loving you foray into non-fiction!

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you like motherhood books you will probably do well with Sight. Sometimes I don’t mind them but I feel like I’ve been reading so many recently and I just need a change of scene. I’m just not maternal enough to connect with any of it. Definitely looking forward to Nelson’s other works though – I already have the Bluets ebook from the library.

      You are inspiring me! In the past I’d mostly read academic type nonfiction but I’m discovering the wonderful world of female-authored memoirs.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great review. I looked at this one soon after it was released, but only got as far as the first two paragraphs before deciding it just wasn’t working for me at that time. It had fallen off my radar lately, but your review has me intrigued again- and hopeful that I might like it better if I read a little farther.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I actually tried listening to it as an audiobook a couple of months ago and only made it about two paragraphs before realizing that Nelson’s style of prose was just NOT going to work for me in audio format, so I put it aside and decided to try again with the ebook, though it took me a while to get to it. So it sounds like stopping after the first 2 paragraphs is a common experience with this book! Anyway, I definitely recommend it, once you get immersed in Nelson’s writing it’s so fluid and readable.
      Plus it’s super short!

      Liked by 1 person

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