NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine
Dial Press, 2019
This is a competent essay collection and it’s not difficult to see why it’s gotten so much critical acclaim; it’s topical, to the point, and easily digested. Some of these essays really worked for me; the standouts being the opening essay, Notes on Intemperance where Pine discusses her father’s alcoholism and illness, and Something About Me – more on this one in a second – but ultimately this essay collection just fell a bit flat for me.
My problem with Notes to Self was that I never felt like Emilie Pine was bringing anything new to the table. The common theme among these essays seems to be ‘let’s talk about it’: let’s talk about period blood, let’s talk about infertility, let’s talk about the effect of divorce on young children, let’s talk about alcoholic parents – but the problem is, it’s a lot of talking without really saying anything. I’m not suggesting that personal essays need a moral, necessarily, or that they need to draw a conclusion, but I do think that for them to be effective, they need to bring in a unique perspective, and that’s what I felt like this essay collection lacked. Emilie Pine is clearly an intelligent woman and a capable writer, but something kept getting lost in these essays for me. I wanted them to hook me, speak to me, challenge me, but they never did.
It’s probably not incidental therefore that my favorite essay, Something About Me, was technically one of the messier ones in this collection. It’s about Pine’s rebellious teenage years, and structurally it’s a bit all over the place, and it undergoes a radical tonal shift in its final pages. But I felt like it was one of the only essays where Pine was really showing herself; not just talking abstractly about topics that have affected her, but showing the reader a glimpse of herself that I felt otherwise remained hidden.
It’s also quite possible that part of the problem was that this was so similar in tone and structure to Sinead Gleeson’s Constellations, which is one of the best things I’ve read all year. I wouldn’t dissuade others from picking up Notes to Self, but Constellations is the one I’d really point you toward if ‘Irish memoirist essay collection about feminism, illness, and womanhood’ is a premise that appeals to you.