My Beloved World

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography is surprisingly good. Where it disappoints, it does so in predictable – and possibly even unavoidable – ways. Though not a page-turner, “My Beloved World” is an interesting (and at times even fascinating) divulgence of a life that is simultaneously relatable and exceptional: “The challenges I have faced – among them material poverty, chronic illness, and being raised by a single mother – are not uncommon, but neither have they kept me from uncommon achievements.”

While much of the writing is dry (hello, her day job requires no-nonsense prose) more than a few segments glow with creative and engaging wordsmithing:

  • “When someone’s dignity shatters in front of you, it leaves a hole that any feeling heart naturally wants to fill, if only with its own sadness.”
  • “If he doubted some of the ideas we presented to him, like so many dead mice offered up by eager kittens, he always tempered his skepticism with good humor.”
  • “His presence was comforting, avuncular, and expansive in a way that suggested a hearty appetite, though his greatest interests were more of the mind than the body. Blinking owlishly behind his glasses, he stuttered slightly. The hesitation only made his words seem more thoughtfully considered.”
  • “But I was still just one piece on the board among many to be sacrificed or defended in the baroque, unknowable sport that was the biggest game in town and in which procedural delay was a cherished tactic.”

The book’s pacing is also spot-on in places and way off in others. While I’m sure it’s difficult to determine which events in one’s own life are objectively interesting, Sotomayor’s book seems to suffer from a sort of emotional unevenness. For example, the middle section of the autobiography – featuring her higher education and marriage – lacks the vibrancy of the beginning (images viewed through the eyes of a child but reproduced with an adult brush) and end (perhaps infused with the emotion of recency).

I also would have replaced a few of the ho-hum descriptions thrown in to honor a friend at the expense of the reader (a problem that is endemic to the genre), with more of Justice Sotomayor’s words of wisdom along the lines of the following:

  • “In my experience when a friend unloaded about a boyfriend or spouse, the listener soaked up the complaint and remembered it long after the speaker had forgiven the offense.”
  • “I have always argued like a man, more noticeably in the context of those days, when an apologetic and tentative manner of speech was the norm among women.” (Sorry to tell ya, Sonia, but those days are these days – or at least were at NYU Law as recently as 2005.)
  • “[A]s for the possibility of ‘having it all,’ career and family, with no sacrifice to either, that is a myth we would do well to abandon, together with the pernicious notion that a woman who chooses one or the other is somehow deficient. To say that a stay-at-home mom has betrayed her potential is no less absurd than to suggest that a woman who puts career first is somehow less a woman.” (YES!)
  • “Dressing badly has been a refuge much of my life, a way of compelling others to engage with my mind, not my physical presence. . . . Elaine gave me the precious gift of showing me that it didn’t need to be that way. I am a woman; I do have a feminine side. Learning to enjoy it would not diminish any other part of me.”

The bottom line: I didn’t expect Justice Sotomayor’s autobiography to be as readable and enjoyable as it is (lawyers and biography lovers ought to delve in posthaste), but her life’s retelling still needs a bit more spark to give it mass appeal.

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