Novelist A. Manette Ansay's beautifully crafted, emotionally complex memoir describes living with a chronic painful, debilitating condition that began mysteriously and has continued to elude both diagnosis and remedy. Without a clear inciting event or a healing resolution to frame her narrative, Ansay structures her memoir as a series of agile reflections in which scenes from the past and present dissolve into one another, mimicking the distortions of time that chronic illness issues. "Time doesn't pass," she writes. "It bleeds, blurs, washes me along" (27).

Ansay's narrative opens when, at age 36, she has returned to visit the somber rural Wisconsin town of her childhood in a body that has lost its "unselfconscious sense of movement" (10). She recounts how she insisted on beginning piano lessons when she was 7, persevering through years of pain and increasing fatigue that ultimately caused her to withdraw from the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. The withdrawal ended her dedicated labor to become a performer. Instead, Ansay navigated medical systems in an urgent, but elusive search for a diagnosis.

Multiple Sclerosis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Lupus could not be verified. Neither could the possibility that playing the piano with nearly manic vigor (in her teachers' view) damaged her body. Ansay's matter-of-fact description of playing Hurricane with her friends in her grandparents' apple orchard-trucks full of pesticides doused the children as they hid in the branches-suggests another still unproven etiology.


Although Ansay claims that her medical history has "swallowed" the other stories she could tell, she reveals the fuller life story of a young woman who grows beyond her secure parochial origins as she continues to love her family (32). She comes to question what she calls the black and white morality of her family's Catholicism and their platitudes about self-denial, refusing to ascribe spiritual meaning to the illness that transformed her life. She awakens intellectually after reading Chaim Potok's The Chosen (see this database) and later directs her love of reading into a career as a writer. Part of the power of her story comes from such resilience.

Part of the power also comes from her ability to place the physical, psychic, and economic miseries of her childhood and young adulthood-more than can be recounted here-in relation to suffering in the world beyond her own experience, first encountered in Potok's novel. In Ansay's hands, Limbo, originally the residence of souls neither welcomed into Heaven nor condemned to Hell, becomes a resonant metaphor. It describes the unresolved state of her medical diagnosis, of her unpredictable life in a body that allows her to live a little, but never fully each day, of her altered sense of time, and more.


HarperCollins/ William Morrow

Place Published

New York



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