Swooning Beauty: A Memoir of Pleasure

Review by Tammy Powley

Joanna Frueh. Swooning Beauty: A Memoir of Pleasure. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2006.

[1] In Joanna Frueh's Swooning Beauty: A Memoir of Pleasure, the author attempts to analyze the process of love. The loves of her life include her parents, chocolate, her ex-husband, herself, and life's luxuries, what she explains as a "lifetime engagement in erotic and aesthetic pleasures" (ix). Frueh provides her own examination of love, especially the notion of self-love, arguing against popular feminist scholars who prefer to talk about "their rape and sexual abuse, but do not describe their orgasms" (279). The author calls on feminists to consider pleasure as well as pain. It is this celebration of life's pleasures and her sexuality that seems to be Frueh's final point, as she uses a "mystory" methodology via memoir to present her argument.

[2] Frueh explains that her original impetus for writing is to use it as a vehicle for working through the loss of her parents, who pass away within eight months of each other, and the eventual loss of her husband, who divorces her after ten years of marriage. She is in mourning, and she puts all of this pain out there as she moves back and forth between present and past, embracing nostalgic childhood memories of masturbation, family meals, and a growing sense of her sexuality. The result is an erotic narrative of food, love, loss, and sex.

[3] Power is another topic woven throughout Frueh's story as she frequently refers to herself as a man. Yet she also often talks about her femininity as a kind of "armor" and "self-protection" (73). So it is obvious that she does not want to become a man. Instead her reference to masculinity is a reference to power. As her parents become more dependent on her and ultimately pass away, there is a role reversal. No longer the child who is taken care of by the parents, she becomes their caregiver, taking "charge of practical matters" such as navigating Medicare or paying bills, both during the end of their lives and after their deaths. All at once she finds herself "heartbroken" and "in renewal" (114) at the same time as she begins to feel pride in her abilities to "take charge" and become powerful.

[4] This discovery of power is one of many changes in her life as she continues her "hero's journey" (114) and finds escape and support via numerous Mel Gibson movies. Mel, in fact, is another narrative method used by Frueh, who tries to explain her "acutely satisfying identifications with Mel" (4). There is the real Mel Gibson, who she refers to as Gibson; her imaginary Mel Gibson, who she refers to as Mel; and then the various characters played by the actor, such as William Wallace from Braveheart and Porter from Payback. All of these versions of Mel Gibson are threaded throughout her memoir, but it is her close connection with the imaginary Mel that allows Frueh to have a kind of childhood imaginary friend. While she works through her parents' deaths and her divorce, she has Mel to dream about, think about, and talk to. He is there virtually as her supporter through this time of mourning.

[5] Just as her story is a mixture of pain and pleasure, the reading of it is also a mixture of good and bad. By taking a different position concerning feminist rhetoric, Swooning Beauty boldly suggests an alternative to the usual feminist fare, and this is courageous of Frueh. She takes many chances with this memoir as she strips herself down and exposes her emotional nakedness. Like the hero Wallace in the movie Braveheart, whom we hear so much about throughout the text, she is not afraid to present this textual performance of her life. However, while this is commendable and even refreshing in academic prose, it also is one of the overall flaws of the book. Some may applaud Frueh's risk-taking and uncensored narrative, and to a certain point I am with them, but I also found the story to be cumbersome. Perhaps this is due to its fragmented "mystory" approach which causes her to wander back and forth over the same issues repeatedly. Some tightening up of the overall narrative would have made this more accessible and clear.