Book Review: The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy

[Reviewed by Nicole Arocho]

‘My father reassured me that it was all right not to know, to remain in a state of awe and mystery. He gave what could’ve been a nightmare “the glory and freshness of a dream.”’

Priscilla Gilman wrote The Anti-Romatic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy with a thousand sentences just like these two.  Because of the personal level of her writing, her emotions flourish throughout the whole book. She delights the reader’s eyes with beautiful sentences decorated with quotes from her favorite poet, William Wordsworth, and her use of imagery aids her to describe so passionately each one of her crossroads. The reader cannot help but feel her tumult of sentiments as if their own. The story of a girl who grew up with divorced parents and dreamt of having a perfect family that turned out to be anything but that, but turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to her may sound like a cliché plotline, but Gilman takes the reader into a world full of unmet expectations, disappointments and difficulties with love and hope bursting through each of her words.

Gilman bluntly states at the beginning of the book that “[it] is a love story”, and a tragic one indeed. As her hyperlexic child, Benjamin, is diagnosed and his treatments became the center of her life, her emotions become so real, so bluntly told on the page, that sometimes it made me uncomfortable to keep reading, because her heart and soul were in the page. I felt I was invading her privacy somehow; no smokescreen, no façade to hide her deepest fears, tribulations and quests for answers that she never seemed to grasp fully. Her dedication to her child goes above and beyond anything else, including her career and her marriage. When the rest of her life plummeted, she still had her “Benj”, and thus could find the strength to keep going for him. She intertwines her marriage and family life with her academic life and her own thoughts splendidly with smooth transitions and wonderful insights the reader expects in a memoir, but that she takes to a new level that brings the reader so close to her, it feels as if we actually have met her and shared this stage of her life with her personally.


You can contact the reviewer, Nicole Arocho, at narocho3@gmail.com.

Gilman was an English professor at Yale University; she taught 19th century literature, which deals with Romanticism. This cultural movement started in the late 18th century and lasted till mid-19th century. It was a reaction to Classicism, a 18th century movement that established reason, logic and the objective above anything else. Thus, Romanticism’s ideology was based in the emotions, feelings and the subjective in a variety of fields, including literature. Gilman’s writing is heavily influenced by Romanticism (Wordsworth was one of the big names of the movement) and departs tremendously from the usual “bad writing” writing she had to do as a professor: ‘[Academic writing] was infected with trendiness and political correctness of the worst kinds. I didn’t like having to engage in the contemporary critical debates, which I fin largely irrelevant or irritating, and I didn’t like the relentless pressure to publish publish publish on the “hot” topics.’

Her sentences are long and poetic, with a truly Romantic tinge to them, her preference for Romanticism-era poets clearly influencing her writing: “This book began as a lump in the throat, as a homesickness for the magical world of my childhood and for the home life I was looking forward to with my child. It began with a sickness of love for a child I adored but did not understand, a love searing in its intensity, overwhelming in its sense of longing and vulnerability, a love I feared would never be reciprocated, and worst of all would never make an impact. It began with the pinning of contact with the spirit or essence of my child, a wrenching fear that perhaps everything I did and said was in vain because he was unreachable and unimpressionable, a fierce devotion to a child I would do anything to save.” Her repetitive sentence style caught my attention right away with this excerpt at the beginning of the memoir. As a poetic person myself, I too sometimes concede a poetry style in my prose, and lengthy sentences just like Gilman’s come across in my stories. But after reading halfway through the book, her style became a bit predictable, and in some instances I wished that the author had not followed that pattern throughout the whole book. In some occasions, I wished Gilman had expressed her feelings in one short sentence. For I truly believe that it is good to let the reader explore the true feelings of the character, in this case the author, and not tell them every single bit of it. This is non-fiction, but it is also creative non-fiction, and the subject is a character that is a part of who the author was or is.

This memoir is written in such a way that you can’t stop wondering how her life is going to unravel in the next page. The reader is so enthralled that when they suddenly blink and come back to reality, they feel like they need a break from the emotional rollercoaster the author is riding them on.

In the end, she realizes her dream of a perfect life did become true, but not the way she had intended it to. “In parenting Benj, I have gotten more in touch with a profound kind of romanticism; I have been given access to a transcendent sense of mystery and awe and wonder.” This period of her life was, indeed, a “story of unexpected joy” I was delighted to read, and I am sure others will love it as well.

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