A Life of One’s Own is plainly a book with a lot to offer, much of it up my street: literature; feminism; personal growth. But I wasn’t looking for anything in particular from it. I bought because it was coincidentally due for release shortly after I finally got around to Biggs’ last book, which I thought was superb. That doesn’t leave me with much of a measure of success, but handily, the book succeeds on its own terms, is plain about what those terms are, and makes a strong case for why they matter.
A Life of One’s Own is a collection of eight essays on women writers’ lives and works, through which are threaded the author’s reflections on the reworking of her life that began with her divorce. Both elements are handled deftly, but they come together into something more universal. Early in the book, Biggs writes:
I used to want desperately to be a ‘proper’ critic, to be taken seriously, to have a full command of history and theory, but I don’t want that any more. I don’t want to ‘admire’ writing for its erudition, I want to be changed by it. I want to know what it’s like to be someone else. I want to have that moment of recognition, finding something on the page I’ve felt but haven’t put into words. I don’t want just to accumulate knowledge but to be transformed by it, even if that transformation is tiny. Reading like this is at first about the possibility of changing your mind, but it can also be about changing the way you live, moving beyond what you already know, and letting that expansion affect how you live. Even at the size of a sandgrain, the shift is enough.
Biggs does seem to succeed in reading like this; she certainly writes like this. Perhaps more importantly, she makes the case for why reading and writing like this is important, and invites us to do it too. As with All Day Long, A Life of One’s Own reaches beneath its premises and shows us something about their foundation that makes the whole thing feel much bigger. I finished this book wanting to catch up on the writers I have missed, but also wanting to follow my own literary interests with the confidence, openness, wisdom and humility that Biggs displays.
Since I, too, want to be changed by writing rather than to admire it, to award stars would be to miss the point. (I suppose this is essentially the reason I do this tiresome ‘no stars’ bit in the first place.) ☆☆☆☆☆