In her early 40s, Rhoda Janzen hit what can be generously called a rough patch. First, she was diagnosed with an illness whose treatment involved a hysterectomy. Then, a surgeon’s error resulted in her being the proud owner of a pee bag, which she took to carrying in an aqua leather tote.
Luckily, her husband of 15 years, Nick, was a capable nurse and, six weeks later, her health issues and emotional upheaval had come to an end—or so she thought. Nick soon left her for a guy he met on Gay.com. Then, that very same week, she got into a car accident on a snowy road and was left with an assortment of broken bones.
In one memorable passage, Janzen’s mother tries to convince her to consider dating her first cousin, Waldemar.
In a state of desperation, Janzen fled into the arms of her family: conservative Mennonites who live in California, and a world away from her in terms of their attitude toward how life should be lived. Janzen was a drinker who avoided church and had chosen not to have kids. “The only reason [Mennonites] are nice to me is that my dad is famous”—in the book she describes him as “the Mennonite equivalent of the pope”—“my mom makes great pie, and I babysat their kids when I was 12.”
The five months she spent with them, recovering and taking stock of the chaotic life she was leading, form the foundation of her new memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. “After my ex-husband left me, I was really free to take risks and reinvent myself,” Janzen says. “This idea of moving back [in with my family] in order to move forward really resonated with me.”
A quick primer on the Mennonites: They are not the Amish. “That’s the biggest misconception,” Janzen notes. “People ask if they have horses and buggies. But they send their kids to public schools, they drive cars.” Speaking in the most general terms, they’re a Christian sect that follows the teachings of Menno Simons and advocate a pious, nonviolent, anticonsumerist lifestyle. Janzen has helpfully supplied a “Mennonite History Primer” at the end of the book, combining history with jokes about their love of public prayer, sing-alongs, and sweater vests.
Despite the unfortunate premise, Janzen’s memoir is, in a word, hysterical. She finds endless humor in the details of her conservative childhood, where she wasn’t allowed to dance or listen to the radio. “I still thought you might be able to get pregnant by kissing until I was 21,” she adds. She came to school toting “shame-based food” like borscht, hot potato salad, and cotletten-and-ketchup sandwiches. “ Cotletten are Mennonite meatballs…The addition of ketchup is an intriguing choice. It gives homemade bread a moist pink pliancy, not unlike damp Kleenex.”
She rebelled, both sartorially—a photo gallery on her publisher’s Web site provides several photos from the ‘80s in which it looks like her style inspiration is Tawny Kitaen in a Whitesnake video—and by leaving the fold, getting a Ph.D., publishing poetry, and marrying Nick, an atheist.
Her sister is also non-practicing, but her two brothers have both stayed in the religion. “They both asked me if there was anything they should know about in the book, but the intention wasn't to vilify the community. Instead, I would hope that the takeaway would be something like all the experiences you find negative or shaming are worth revisiting as an adult.”
In the tradition of David Sedaris, it’s her family who is the source of the book’s biggest laughs, and its heart. Her dour father is clad in plaid shorts and black dress socks pulled up snugly along the calf. Her mother—the book’s breakout star—is a nurse unafraid to talk in great detail about any bodily function or drink the leftover juice from a can of tuna. In one memorable passage, she tries to convince Janzen to consider dating her first cousin, Waldemar. When Janzen reveals that she’s been casually dating a slacker and pot smoker post-divorce, her mom replies, “I think that the Lord appreciates a man on a tractor more than a man smoking marijuana in his pajamas. I know I do.”
“I’ve personally found so much delight writing about my mom,” Janzen says. She read the book to her mom “word for word. A couple of times she laughed and said, ‘Oh, Rhoda.’”
Despite the humor, the book harbors a dark undercurrent in Janzen’s deteriorating relationship with her ex. As the story of their tumultuous relationship unfolds, we learn that he’s bipolar with a tendency toward mania (think buying sprees) and rage (his anger was so palpable at their divorce hearing that her lawyer was afraid he would try to harm her). When he leaves her, she’s so riddled with anxiety over paying the mortgage on an expensive lake house they had purchased together that she turns to feng shui and Elizabeth Gilbert-style positive thinking.
It comes as no surprise that Gilbert, who rarely blurbs books and doesn’t know the author personally, heaped generous praise upon Janzen’s memoir. “I have a list already of about 14 friends who need to read this book,” Gilbert gushes. “I will insist that they read it. Because simply put, this the most delightful memoir I've read in ages.” Gilbert lends the book some chick-lit cred—something it’s obviously going for with the title—but Janzen’s prose is much smarter than the confines of the genre, and the way she writes about religion is evenhanded and nuanced.
There is no pat ending to her story, but Janzen does find herself in some unlikely romances, first with a Christian named Mitch, who she meets at the grocery store and who asks her if she’s “a single woman of God,” and then to a fellow Mennonite—a previous dealbreaker—who is 17 years her junior.
“I'm no longer dating that Mennonite guy,” Janzen reports. In fact, in the time since the book was published, she got married to Mitch, and also received a cancer diagnosis. (She declined to discuss the specifics of her prognosis.) And she’s starting work on a new book about the unexpected turns her life has taken.
For now, though, she has the current book to promote. One event on the book tour she’s looking forward to in particular: Some Mennonites are throwing her a traditional Mennonite potluck. “Although I do poke gentle fun, I'm hoping it's clear that I mean well,” she says. So far, it seems like her message has been clear. She read an early Mennonite review of the book that called it “not your mother’s Mennonite memoir.”
Marisa Meltzer is coauthor of How Sassy Changed My Life. Her next book, Girl Power , will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February.