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When Work And Love Hit The Skids, 'Slow' Down

Dominque Browning was editor-in-chief of Conde Nast's House & Garden magazine for nearly 13 years -- a fabulously high-powered job in a Devil Wears Prada kind of world filled with business meetings in Paris and glitzy benefit dinners in Manhattan, and deadlines and pressure. Then, in 2007, House & Garden suddenly folded, and Browning was given four days to pack up her Hermes silk scarves and walk out into the world of the redundant. She was in her 50s, divorced, with two almost-grown sons and a waffling cad of a lover who, after seven years with Browning, still couldn't decide whether to get a divorce or even move out of the apartment he still shared with his wife.

Browning's savings began to evaporate in the stock market, she couldn't sleep, and due to nervous nocturnal nibbling, she packed on the pounds. Thanks to a hyper-vigilant gynecologist, Browning also discovered, in time, that she had kidney cancer.

Browning has just published a memoir about losing her job and shedding her old identity; it's called Slow Love and, after reading it, all I can think is: "Sister, if this is what unemployment looks like, hand me that pink slip now!"

Especially to the nearly 10 percent of Americans who are currently out of work, Browning's memoir will read like a luscious fantasy of unemployment. Browning recounts how she sold her beloved home outside New York City; moved permanently into her newly renovated vacation house by the sea in Rhode Island; and threw herself into gardening, Bible reading and mastering the Goldberg Variations on her piano.

The subtitle of Browning's memoir underscores its privileged class perspective. It reads: "How I Lost My Job, Put On My Pajamas & Found Happiness." The pajamas, by the way, are from Brooks Brothers men's department, which Browning, a connoisseur, insists makes "the best pajamas for grown women." But, in fairness, Browning from the get-go acknowledges that hers "is not a story of financial ruin [but rather of] psychological collapse." Slow Love doesn't claim to be a representative tale of unemployment; rather, it reads more like a female romance about self-resilience, much like Elizabeth Gilbert's juggernaut, Eat, Pray, Love.

Taken on its own terms, Slow Love is a compelling and often funny addition to that burgeoning literary subset of autobiography: namely, women's memoirs about being knocked down in midlife and, painfully, arthritically, figuring out a way to get up again.

The most wince-making sections of Slow Love are devoted to Browning's long love affair with the legally separated-but-married man she calls "Stroller," because he strolls away at crucial moments. Browning astutely diagnoses but remains in thrall to Stroller's "weirdly intoxicating potion of loving unavailability." One of their most grotesque exchanges occurs when they're eating lunch out in New York, a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks, and Stroller announces that he's disinviting Browning to his country house and inviting his wife instead because he's worried about another terrorist attack. Browning, who feels as though she's being banished from paradise, describes her response as "the derangement of a howling Eve."

Yet this dance of romantic ambivalence continues until the spell is weakened by Browning's cancer and the months that follow -- months of unhurried, focused attention to family and friends, her own body and nature. Browning calls this shift in focus "slow love," which she says is "about knowing what you've got before it's gone."

Browning identifies as a feminist and she's careful -- in this ode to "slow love" and her new, nature-saturated, domestic life in Rhode Island -- not to fall into the reactionary posture of condemning her past life as a working mother. What she ultimately learns has much more to do with recognizing that everything -- work, love -- is all too temporary.

Toward the end of her nuanced memoir, she drives home this epiphany by describing the bizarre existence of the purple sea snail, which floats on the ocean on a raft of mucus. Browning writes beautifully about nature and its lessons, so I'll let her take it from here.

"Difficult to imagine," she writes, "such a fragile hold on life, in a home anchored by no more than the thread of a baby's spittle. ... [P]erhaps we only think we have a surer grip; we float our hopes on bubbles of optimism and opportunity, and the lines that keep us alive are easily snipped."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.