In her first memoir, Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir From an Atomic Town, Kelly McMasters chronicled her happy childhood in a small blue-collar seaside community—and her horrified realization that nearby nuclear reactor leaks were causing cancer in numerous residents.
McMasters again explores the notion of something dark and poisonous lurking beneath a bright, beautiful surface in The Leaving Season: A Memoir in Essays. This time, she’s writing as a woman emerging from a long relationship, feeling both sorrowful and sanguine. “Marriage, after all,” she writes, “is just one long exercise in controlled burning.”
With poetry and profundity, the author reflects on her path from 20-something optimistic wife and mother-to-be to 30-something reluctant yet relieved divorcee and single mom. Her ex-husband is referred to as R., a painter she began dating just prior to 9/11. On that day, they stared out his studio window in New York City, and McMasters “had the strange sense that, like Lot’s wife, I might disintegrate into salt if I turned away from this body left standing next to me as the others collapsed impossibly in front of my eyes.”
The experience “grafted us to one another,” McMasters writes, and afterward the couple embarked on a tale as old as time: Artsy city-dwellers purchase land in a rural area, anticipating a slower pace, stronger connection and lots of room to grow. McMasters and R. did experience many of those things; her descriptions of their new surroundings are compelling and beautiful, her efforts to befriend taciturn farmers humorous, her determination impressive. (Whiskey helped.) But while sunlight dappled the grass and their young children created joyful chaos, R. grew distant and McMasters “felt like a broken compass needle, spinning and searching for purchase.”
The author’s candor and hard-won perspective will offer solidarity and support to those who are longing to feel seen, and perhaps contemplating shaking up their own lives. In reading The Leaving Season, an old saying came to mind: Wherever you go, there you are. But what if you aren’t sure who you are? McMasters’ masterful, moving memoir of her journey from the city to the country to the suburbs makes an excellent case for taking the time to figure that out, no matter how frightening it seems.