Like many other elite white millennials, Jean Hannah Edelstein felt somewhat adrift throughout her twenties and into her early thirties; trying to pursue a career in writing and publishing, she moved between London, Berlin and New York, having few long-term relationships with men and not able to meet traditional ‘adult’ goals. (Edelstein writes interestingly on the changing definitions of adulthood here). There’s a sense in which Edelstein is always neither here nor there; caught between her American upbringing and her many years of living in Britain and Germany, confused by a Jewishness that is signalled clearly by her last name but which, unlike surnames, is not inherited down the male line. However, this familiar kind of memoir is punctuated by two terrible things: Edelstein’s father’s death from lung cancer, and Edelstein’s own discovery that she has inherited Lynch syndrome from him, a genetic mutation that significantly raises her lifetime risk of a number of types of cancer.
Edelstein’s discovery pushes her even further into liminal spaces, especially the doctors’ recommendation that she has a prophylactic hysterectomy and oophorectomy to limit her chances of getting womb and ovarian cancer. But Edelstein wants to have children, and she’s afraid that she won’t feel like a woman any more if she doesn’t have her reproductive organs, even though she’s fully aware that being a woman is not dependent on being able to, or wanting to have, babies. ‘I suspected that it is problematic to be a single woman in your thirties because men assume you are desperate to have children,’ she writes, ‘but even more problematic if you are facing surgery that is going to make that impossible‘. Thankfully, this all has a happy ending: Edelstein’s son, born through IVF to avoid the chance of him inheriting Lynch syndrome, was born at the end of 2018.
This Really Isn’t About You is cleverly structured – Edelstein starts with her diagnosis, flashes back to the way she lived her life before, then ends with the aftermath – and very well-written. The memoir is lifted above similar offerings such as Meg Fee’s Places I Stopped On The Way Home not just because of its subject-matter but because of the specificity of Edelstein’s observations. Her memories of her father avoid generic emotion and are incredibly touching; ‘On Sunday mornings my father made us all pancakes for breakfast, including ones without eggs and milk for my brother, who was allergic to eggs and milk, and including one pancake for the dog… [He] once developed a failsafe method for making Jell-O, using the microwave. During the course of its development he produced so much Jell-O… that he started giving it away to the neighbours. The neighbours seemed a little surprised to receive the gift of Jell-O. My father thought it was a fine gift.’ As someone who spent five years of her childhood in Washington DC then moved back to Britain, I also appreciated Edelstein’s transatlantic observations from the other direction. This is very true: ‘I would start feeling sorry for my cousins [in Scotland] who were trapped in a place where it rained for so many days in the summer and where, in the late 80s, there seemed to be only four television channels and two flavours of ice cream: vanilla, which was sliced from a brick, and rum & raisin, which was disgusting.’
I’d love to see This Really Isn’t About You advance to the Wellcome Prize shortlist: apart from Jessie Greengrass’s Sight, it’s my favourite entry so far.