Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Review: Smile

Sarah Ruhl ushered three things into the world during the same year--a play that opened on Broadway and her twin babies. After spending months on bed rest and closely monitoring her pregnancy due to cholestasis of the liver, her babies were delivered safely. But the next day, her lactation consultant noticed her face was drooping and Ruhl learned that she had Bell's palsy. Then her babies are rushed to the intensive care unit. When they all finally go home, Ruhl wonders if she is living in a fairy tale--did she trade the face she didn't know to cherish for the safe delivery of her children? 

This story is both deeply personal and terribly universal. Ruhl writes about the number of women who become depressed while on bed rest, women who develop severe conditions during pregnancy or after giving birth, and the parents who anxiously wait for answers about their babies. Many parents can remember the specific exhaustion of waking up to feed a baby or the uncertainty in helping an older child navigate a changed family. Hopefully, all of us can remember the moments when someone showed up for us like they do for Ruhl--for an important achievement at work, to drive us home from the hospital, or to walk our newborn in soothing circles while we catch a few moments of sleep.

I first experienced the magic of Sarah Ruhl's words when I read some of her plays for a theatre class in college. Playwrights, by necessity, are sparse writers. There is not a lot of room for extra words when actors must keep the audience interested in what is happening onstage. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the right words and facial expressions to convey meaning, it was devastating for Ruhl to not be able to pronounce p sounds as she read to her daughter or smile to convey warmth and friendliness. "I felt inside a paradox: I thought I could not truly reenter the world until I could smile again; and yet, how could I be happy enough to smile again when I couldn't reenter the world?"

Smile is indeed the story of a particular face. It's also a chronicle of a mother with an intense career and a woman who has to navigate a health care system that often fails its patients. Ruhl is funny and relatable and there are moments it seems ridiculous that she can make a story about her pain so compelling and delightful to read. I'm glad she decided to share this story with the world and hope that it will help more people discover both her prose and her plays. 

Smile: The Story of a Face
By Sarah Ruhl
Simon and Schuster October 2021
256 pages
Read via Netgalley 

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