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Empty Nester In 'The Woods': A Modern Dantean Journey

Empty Nester In 'The Woods': A Modern Dantean Journey

Allowing for translation, those are the immortal opening lines of Dante's Divine Comedy. Here, some seven centuries later, are some of Lynn Darling's opening lines from her new memoir, Out of the Woods: "The summer my only child left home for college, I moved from an apartment in New York City, to live alone in a small house at the end of a dirt road in the woods of central Vermont."

Darling's personal version of Dante's dark night of the soul will resonate with many empty nesters, especially women. By the time she vacated that New York apartment where she'd lived with her daughter, Darling, a longtime widow and magazine writer, realized that she'd lost most of the familiar routines that had marked her daily life. As she says, "I fell out of my own map." Shaken, Darling moves to that house in the middle of nowhere to try to develop a fresh sense of direction, metaphorically and literally. Among the things she lists as her goals are: "figure out how to be old," "deal with sex" and "learn Latin." What unfolds is a compelling story of internal exploration, as well as outward-bound adventure that owes something to Henry David Thoreau and Virginia Woolf, with occasional detours into that classic 1940s Cary Grant-Myrna Loy comedy, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

The plain wooden house that Darling finds in a secluded area of Vermont was "cranky" and "unfinished" — "a state," she says, "that reflected my own." Off the grid and connected to civilization by a deeply rutted dirt road, Darling's house is not a retreat for the easily spooked. She sluggishly sets about trying to make the place a home by buying a wood stove, a machete to hack away at the encroaching forest and a lap puppy as a companion.

One of the most lighthearted moments in this memoir is when Darling realizes that she's "recasting" her new life in terms of the old by substituting driving her puppy to a doggie day care in a nearby town for her former routine of dropping off and picking up her daughter at school.

But this memoir is distinguished, above all, by Darling's determination (not unlike Dante's) to stare steadily into the pit. All too soon, she realizes that her house, what she'd originally dubbed her "Fortress of Solitude" has become "Castle Dismal." At night, loneliness, Darling says, "pressed like a stone on my chest. Sometimes I was almost grateful for that stone; it kept me weighted down when I was sure I would float away, so little connection did I have to the world."

For better or worse, however, the world looks up Darling's address and soon comes a-knocking. Darling decides to give Internet dating in the Vermont area a whirl (though the results pretty much send her back to learning Latin as a pastime); her aged mother's dementia worsens and Darling must travel to suburban Virginia to arrange for her care; and, most sobering of all, Darling discovers that she has breast cancer and must commute to New York for treatment.

There've been many accounts of this particular female extreme adventure, but Darling's is striking in its intelligence and imagery. For instance, sitting on her couch in Castle Dismal one night, Darling looks out her French doors at the inky black woods and sees an old man's pale face staring back at her in the glass. "Fascinated, [and] repelled," Darling, who's lost her hair to chemo, realizes that "this old bespectacled egg-headed man" is, indeed, her own face reflected in the glass. It's another powerful moment where Darling completely loses her bearings.

Out of the Woods is not one of those memoirs that ends with lessons learned and a safe plateau in life secured. In fact, if there's one thing that Darling's intense story impresses upon readers, it's that we'd be fools to think that any of the paths we're following are straightforward, or that any of our fancy GPS systems won't someday leave us stranded in an unknown land, looking up at the stars for direction.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.