“All writing, which comes from the seat of recollection and is always about the writer’s past even if it is set in a fictional present, is triggered by a destruction. You are welcome to test this ridiculously generalized theory.”
–MHP, in The Place You Love is Gone (W.W. Norton, 2006)
A few years ago, I set off in a rental car from Dublin with my parents and uncle to search for the Macnamara family ancestral home. We had with us an ancient photograph of a farmhouse, and for some reason, my dad believed that the house was located in County Cork, Ireland. No, it was in Knocklong. Or was it Knockburden? Somewhere in the area. Maybe the house would still be standing, and we could get out of the car and stand next to it on the soil of our great-great grandparents.
I’m sure you’re not surprised that we never found the house, but we found a good pub along the way. We Macnamaras ate fish and chips together as modern-day “Sons of the Hound of the Sea” (That’s meaning of the family name. Anyone want to tell me—exactly—what is a hound of the sea?). Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Place You Love is Gone: Progress Hits Home (W.W. Norton, 2006) recently reminded me of this ill-fated search. In Pierson’s book, however, a potato famine isn’t the reason we’re all wondering what happened to that place we once called home. The culprit, according to Pierson, is “progress.”
In The Place You Love is Gone, Pierson explores the tainted landscapes of her youth, which strip malls have grown over like weeds. From Akron, Ohio to Hoboken to the Catskills, we’re drawn along on a journey through lost place as Person memorializes (often quite humorously) the old homes she still holds dear. “Rattlesnakes are thick along the way to Sam’s Club,” Pierson says of Akron, “An ancient and profound race of native people portages its canoes on the centuries-old path that passes by Broasted Chicken…The hometown of my youth is now recognizable only in the places they haven’t got to yet, though I hear plans are afoot.” Who hasn’t experienced what Pierson describes?
I’d characterize this book’s voice as “uniformly quirky,” as in: it’s seamlessly strange. And that’s one of its strengths. Pierson’s conversational style and habit of directly addressing the reader drew me into her narrative of place, but I found myself turned off several times when her attempts to honor the past turned into sappy, self-deluded recollections of it. Her beautifully crafted lyrical writing style saves her, though, and I’m still lingering over her words.
The Place You Love is Gone is a book for:
Those interested in (lost) landscapes. People pissed off about progress. Anyone from Akron. Lovers of language. And general readers who want to expose themselves to the “uniformly quirky.”