With grievance and unspecific anger the major themes of so many contemporary memoirs, Unabrow is a literary breath of fresh air. The book consists of 20 comic essays chronicling Una LaMarche’s difficulty navigating womanhood while looking back at how her awkward formative years—as a single-browed adolescent—shaped her self-image. LaMarche adopts a quasi-cautionary tone, as if to warn the next generation how not to lead their lives, and the result is an absolutely sidesplitting collection.
It’s hard to miss the dust jacket of Unabrow while browsing the new releases. It’s a photograph of LaMarche as a 6-year-old sporting a single bushy eyebrow and an adorable grin. Even though she liberated her eyebrows in the early 1990s, LaMarche still identifies as a freak: “It’s very confusing to define so much of your inner identity by an exterior trait that you no longer possess. (Jennifer Grey, if you’re reading, I know you feel me on this.)”
Born in Texas in 1980, LaMarche and her family moved to Brooklyn when she was 8. New York was fitting for a child who suffered her first “existential panic attack” at the age of 4, beneath the glittering stars of the Rose Planetarium at the Natural History Museum. With a hairy forehead, troll doll earrings, and a hopeless crush on Garrison Keillor, LaMarche may have had a higher-than-average degree of adolescent awkwardness, but she manages to make her suffering seem like hilarious revelations.
But while everything is fodder for comedy—there’s a whole chapter devoted to death, and it’s entirely punchy—LaMarche does shift to a more serious tone when discussing certain heavier topics, such as her eating disorder, postpartum depression, and the loneliness that comes from not fitting in. But she’s quick to make a crack at her own expense, lightening the mood.
LaMarche is so affable as a storyteller because she acknowledges her flaws, yet she does so without self-pity or complaint, and she never bashes herself in the name of comedy. That said, she cops to making terrible decisions: She’s lied about bigger things (losing her virginity) and smaller things (being a no-show at driving lessons, age 25). And in her senior year of high school, she pretended to twist her ankle with exaggerated dramatic flair in order to get out of track practice. She then had to keep up the charade for the remainder of the school year and had difficulty remembering which leg to limp on when she went up to accept an award for team spirit.
Some of these essays were inspired by her popular blog, The Sassy Curmudgeon, and here in print, LaMarche has breathed life into those unfiltered entries while maintaining the vigor and casualness of a blog. Unlike Lena Dunham’s collection, Not That Kind of Girl, LaMarche (who is a decade older than Dunham—a significant age gap, since Dunham is oft criticized for being the product of the navel-gazing millennial generation) appears mature and self-aware. As a writer, her candor and colloquial use of language have a way of making you feel as though she is speaking only to you.
While much of the real estate here is spent retracing her reluctant journey to adulthood, the real strength of Unabrow is how acutely LaMarche depicts what it’s like to be a woman in America these days: e.g., what it’s like to give birth to a child (there’s a hilarious play-by-play of her natural childbirth, written in the form of a live-blog post, followed by a helpful diagram of the “nine circles of hell”), and how her life, work, and marriage were transformed as a result. LaMarche also observes that women in their 30s are misrepresented on television and in movies—especially mothers, who are depicted either as “MILFs” or martyrs. And with so many voices out there telling women how to “have it all” or shaming women into being “better” parents, what makes LaMarche especially appealing is that she writes from the perspective of a woman who happens to be flawed. Doesn’t everyone have their own version of a unibrow that they carry around with them all the time, even if it no longer exists?
Sophie Flack, author of Bunheads, has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and Ballet Review.