book review: Lopsided

Author: Meredith Norton
Publisher:
Penguin

Living in Paris sounded romantic. My parents loved answering their friends’ inquiries about me with, “Oh, Meredith is still in Paris.” The fact that I was doing nothing, had no career or plans for a career was irrelevant. Were I in Oakland they’d have had to look away and change the subject, but doing nothing in Paris was bragworthy.

In reality, living in Paris wasn’t romantic; it was highly stressful. Parisians are a stressed population in general, but being an American in France, a country still bristling from its demoted status as world leader, was especially taxing. Rarely a cocktail hour passed without my screaming that I didn’t vote for George Bush, didn’t like George Bush, and didn’t want to talk about George Bush.

What do you do when you live in France, married to a French national and return home to visit your family in California and receive terrible medical news? What do you do when your doctors tell you that your chance of surviving cancer is 40%? What do you do when your son is only 18-months-old and has little concept of what mommy is going through? For Meredith Norton, you face it with intelligence, humor and a strong family support system. Lopsided is a fresh, witty and at times brash memoir about breast cancer. It reminds me a bit of Amy Silverstein’s Sick Girl in that Norton holds little back and is honest and open about everything from the doctors to the pain to the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation to her feelings about friends and family coming out of the woodwork to visit her after hearing about her diagnosis. [The three worst groups of people to tell were the ones that had heard and didn’t know what to say when they saw me, the cancer survivors who expected me to feel some sort of camaraderie, and the pitiers who refused to believe that I wasn’t secretly a hysterical, hopeless, vomiting shell of my former self.]

Norton, the child of a surgeon, grew up in an exclusive neighborhood and attended private school. [My privileged upbringing had instilled in me a sense of entitlement that didn’t need reinforcing. That is really the American dream—not working hard and buying things, but reaching a place where there is no pressure to acknowledge that you already have everything.] She was often one of only a few black girls at her school and has many white friends. There’s one girl, Amy, who accused Norton of stealing money from her on a ski trip even though Amy attended school on scholarship and Norton came from a more wealthy family. The entire thing reeked of racism for Norton and she walked away from Amy forever. A few of the friends she had who have since gone their separate ways contacted her when they heard she had cancer and tried to make amends for their youthful disagreements. She did reconcile with some of these friends and discusses that in Lopsided.

Woven through her experiences as a cancer patient, Norton reminisces about her life experiences. Before she became an expatriate and moved to France and married Thibault, Norton had many occupations. She worked for three years as an inner-city Eighth grade English and U.S. history teacher. She produced a game show in England. For three years, she and her best friend Rebecca ran a design company called Norton Whittaker Inc. that went bankrupt and nearly destroyed their friendship.

Norton chronicles her unilateral mastectomy [What was left of my chest, my lone boob, served no purpose whatsoever but presented plenty of problems. If I wanted to appear presentable, I was forced to wear a falsie.], losing her hair [no stubble, just smooth, rubbery skin stretched tight and waxy. I spent hours caressing it.], chemotherapy [About midway through the chemo my nails started to change color. My fingernails were so sensitive that I found myself lifting things with the heel of my palm and turning pages with my elbows. Slowly, the purple crept higher and higher up my nail bed and the white slowly pulled back to meet it.], hot flashes [they caused her to sweat right through her pillow even when sleeping in her underwear], fear of her mortality [But what the therapist said was true: if I died prematurely Lucas wouldn’t even have any context in which to place me.], and her distain for cancer survivor Lance “Live Well” Armstrong.

There’s a plethora of memoirs in the bookstores these days but I assure you that you will not regret reading Norton’s Lopsided. Whether you have a connection to cancer or not, Lopsided is a scintillating read. Norton is your friend, your former college classmate, that sassy woman you want to join your book club or invite for a cup of coffee. Her sharp, sardonic sense of humor propels this book from page one.

When Rebecca found me in a corner at the Puma Outlet trying on a black wool cap and came at me with open arms it was the first time since skinny-dipping in snow runoff that I welcomed a hug. Since the diagnosis, all the hugs may have been intended to help me, but were really serving the hugger. Suddenly, these embraces were a refuge that I could hide my knobby, gray head behind. I was so ashamed to be contaminated by this ugly disease and have it broadcast so publicly.

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