In 2014, Molly Wizenberg opened her memoir Delancey with an epigraph from the writer Wendell Berry: “The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” That book, her second, was about how opening the Ballard pizza restaurant Delancey with her husband Brandon Pettit stressed and altered their marriage. In her new memoir, The Fixed Stars, out on August 4, she quotes from Delancey’s final pages. “I don’t know what we would be without [the restaurant], that process, that constant growing, but it doesn’t mean that I crave it the way Brandon does, or that I always like it.” In The Fixed Stars, Wizenberg offers a present-day caveat, writing that “one cannot live at one’s limits for long. One cannot stay there indefinitely, not even for love.”
At least in the abstract, The Fixed Stars returns to where she began with Delancey, to that Berry quote, the impeded stream, its fluidity. In 2015, a little over a year after releasing Delancey, Wizenberg gets a jury summons. At the trial she feels an attraction to one of the defense attorneys, Nora, “a woman in a men’s suit.” She’s always thought of herself as “straight enough to not think about whether I was straight.” After all, she’s married to a man, is 36, the parent to a toddler. Yet she has an instantaneous crush in the truest sense, an attraction to Nora overwhelming and unavoidable. By the time she leaves the building, she hears a refrain from her sandals on the sidewalk: “Who am I, who am I. Who am I?”
For the rest of the book Wizenberg attempts to answer that question, starting with a relentless inquisition into her identity. If she’s straight, what about that college haircut that Pettit said made her look like a lesbian? What about that college summer she worked at Whole Foods and maybe wanted to kiss a female coworker? What about the LGBTQ+ “born-this-way narrative,” which has been so important for contradicting spurious cures for queerness like conversion therapy?
Eventually, she and Pettit open up their marriage. She dates Nora for a bit, but it doesn’t work out. Neither does the marriage. Ultimately Wizenberg identifies as queer and falls for Ash, who’s nonbinary. (They got married late last year, after the book was written.)
Throughout the story Wizenberg tries to make sense of her shifting self. At first, that she’d published two memoirs already didn’t help. Instead, she told me, “the fact that I had written so much about my life just poured gasoline” on her shame over her dissolving marriage. Unlike the Orangette blog where she made her name, her memoirs sit on shelves, meant for a sort of timelessness. Was all the wisdom she’d supposedly been imparting false?
In the book, part of how she moves past this thinking is situating her voice among the voices of other writers, many of them queer. Perhaps fittingly, this is her first non-food book. In the last pages you do not find a recipe index (as in Delancey) but a bibliography with names like Judith Butler, Alison Bechdel, Maggie Nelson. “I felt very aware of the fact that I had spent 36 years of my life living in a straight world…. And I felt like a real interloper into the world of queer writing,” she says. Instead of presenting herself as an immediate authority, she takes us with her, lesson by lesson. This is one of Wizenberg’s gifts. She forges a convivial relationship with readers, a tone of polished conversation. Sometimes this goes too far: She’ll write a sharp, lucid sentence and then explain it for another paragraph, muting its precision to ensure she brings along any reader. Yet I haven’t found a book that both cites Michel Foucault and reads this effortlessly.
Even the book’s major epiphany is intertextual. It comes when Wizenberg notices and reads a book she’d bought a while back, Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire, which argues that women’s sexuality is not fixed (as we perceive constellations of stars to be, though even they drift). It is fluid, plastic, or as a friend of Wizenberg’s wrote, “queerness should really make us realize that the common thread is that we are all unique. And our sexuality is personal and specific, and it can evolve.” It’s Wendell Berry’s stream. Flowing, moving, perhaps impeded, but singing.