Our Shared Shelf May book review: “The Argonauts”

maggie nelson

Welcome back to my monthly coverage of Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf book club! Last month’s pick was “How to Be a Woman” by Caitlin Moran and this month Ms. Watson has chosen “The Argonauts” by Maggie Nelson.

“The Argonauts” official Goodreads synopsis:

An intrepid voyage out to the frontiers of the latest thinking about love, language, and family

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a genre-bending memoir, a work of “autotheory” offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of love and language. At its center it is a romance: the story of the author’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge. This story, which includes Nelson’s account of falling in love with Dodge, who is fluidly gendered, as well as her journey to and through a pregnancy, offers a firsthand account of the complexities and joys of (queer) family making.

Writing in the spirit of public intellectuals such as Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, Nelson binds her personal experience to a rigorous exploration of what iconic theorists have said about sexuality, gender and the vexed institutions of marriage and child-rearing. Nelson’s insistence on radical individual freedom and the value of caretaking become the rallying cry of this thoughtful, unabashed, uncompromising book.”

Emma, Emma, Emma. What ever are we going to do?

As I mentioned in my previous review for April’s pick, Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf really was a treat at the beginning of the year. Though the first read had its flaws, the second was superb and I truly believed the journey of the book club would be on an upward trajectory. Call me an optimist or point out my (possibly disproportionate/inappropriate) high hopes, but I thought maybe I might even discover a new favorite book or an author to who I could really connect.

But that didn’t happen. And I don’t see it happening as Our Shared Shelf continues.

argonautsfeatureI respect and admire Emma Watson on many different levels. She brought to life one of the most important female heroines of my childhood; she’s worked — and done tremendous things — to highlight the importance of feminism and the massive issue of gender inequality the whole world is facing. She’s extremely intelligent and such a kind public figure overall. Though last month I had equated my half-lost, half-disappointed feeling with betrayal at the hand of Emma herself, this month I turned inward. Maybe it’s me. Perhaps it’s not that these books aren’t fit for me, but that I am not fit for them. I may be a feminist and pro-women and many of my views may align with Emma’s — and with the majority of Our Shared Shelf members as well, I’m sure — but the reality might simply be that I am not the intended audience for these books. Maybe I don’t go hand-in-hand with them like others do. And that’s a difficult pill to swallow, not only because it makes me feel I may not belong in this club I once believed I did, but also because it caused me to ask myself a question I don’t think any of us would want to ask: “Am I a bad feminist?”

While reading Maggie Nelson’s mostly memoir, written in an “open letter to” style to her partner Harry Dodge, I was flip-flopping between on-board and off. “The Argonauts” is objectively a good book. It’s written in her own voice, imbued with experience and heartache and honesty — all components that can make up a wonderfully written and wonderful-to-read book. Like every other author in this book club, Nelson knows how to write. Beyond that, there wasn’t much to which I felt a pull. The open approach with which she crafted her work was wonderful, particularly in regards to her relationship with Dodge, LGBTQIA+ issues, parent and motherhood, death and identity. That aspect of “The Argonauts” deserves to be celebrated for its rawness and for Nelson’s vulnerability and willingness to share the intimate and difficult parts of her life. I enjoyed those moments, and found certain points wise and poignant.

However — and there’s always a “however” — Nelson seemed to either gloss over a lot of themes and discussion points, or explain them in a roundabout way that left me distanced and feeling patronized. This seems to be a recurring theme in Our Shared Shelf: Feminist literature authored by very well-informed and knowledgeable women, so much so that their writing airs on preachy and slightly condescending. The fact that this has popped up multiple times in the five months of Our Shared Shelf worried me in the past, and led me to place fault on the books and their authors, but now has me wondering if I simply get lost in what others enjoy with ease. As someone who majored in English Literature and Language as an undergraduate, and as a current English graduate student, I understood her literary and philosophical references. They weren’t above my head or out of my reach, I simply didn’t get it in the scope of the book. Nelson’s work was also a bit disjointed, tying into that “skimming over” trap into which “The Argonauts” fell.

All of this is not to say I necessarily disliked “The Argonauts.” I neither hated nor truly enjoyed it, but rather was blanketly indifferent to nearly all of what she had written. I was lost most of the time, and didn’t understand the hows and whys  of a great deal of the book. After all, it’s difficult to feel anything toward something to which you don’t connect. Granted, “The Argonauts” was markedly better than last month’s pick, and that alone made the reading experience feel noticeably different and, in a certain way, refreshing. But I felt like I should have loved it, like I should have devoured it in a sitting or two and rushed to pour out my thoughts. Based on others’ reactions and the high praise it received, my lack of a real reaction to it felt what can only be described as unnatural. Surely if these accomplished feminists, men and women and everyone in between loved Nelson’s book I should too, right? Am I a bad or inadequate feminist for not?

While I didn’t glean much from Nelson’s words in her work, the self-reflection that preceded my reading of it — that ironically had nothing to do with “The Argonauts” itself — was important. It remains with me in this present moment and will undoubtedly influence the manner in and angle from which I approach future Our Shared Shelf picks. Overall “The Argonauts” was neither stellar nor stale, but it definitely wasn’t for me.

Rating: ★★★ (3/10)

If you haven’t already, you can become a member of Our Shared Shelf now! Head on over to Goodreads and click “join group.” Be sure to check back here at TYF each month to see my reviews.

Emma’s pick for June is “The Complete Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi.

Until July, happy reading!

AJ Caulfield is a 22-year-old writer, massive goofball, and quite possibly Leslie Knope's long-lost twin. She's a big fan of 80's rock music, female-directed films, and Mad Men.