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The Journal Keeper: A Memoir

Web-Exclusive Book Review

Phyllis Theroux began keeping a daily journal 40-odd years ago—a time when her personal life was "going down in flames," in her words, and her professional life as a writer was just taking off. Divorced with three small children, Theroux used the journal to record her thoughts and feelings as she careened from "one drama-filled day to the next." The diary helped ground her, she recalls in this memoir, so she was "not so easily blown off course."

The Journal Keeper begins several decades after that turmoil, when Theroux is 61 and living with her 82-year-old mother in the small, central-Virginia town of Ashland. By now she is a well-known writer with several books to her credit, notably Night Lights: Bedtime Stories for Parents in the Dark and California and Other States of Grace. Her children are grown and on their own, and her life has quieted down—perhaps too much so. Though she doesn't come right out with it, she is in the throes of another crisis, trying to figure out how to live a meaningful life while staring down aging and mortality.

The Journal Keeper, which spans six years, ends with the 67-year-old author reinvigorated and living the passionate life to which she aspires. But the journey has been rigorous. Theroux struggles mightily to come to grips with getting older, and the reader feels her pain. "Living in the past is the temptation and burden of aging," she writes at one point. Later she wonders "if I am now a shade tree for younger writers rather than a fruit-bearing tree myself." And feeling herself "marginalized" by age, she says it's "no wonder old men father babies to keep themselves in the midst of things."

Yet there is much that is lively, even inspiring, in these pages. The author moved to Ashland from Washington, D.C., in 1988, and her depiction of small-town life—the comforts as well as the drawbacks—is winning. So too the portrait of her wise, charmingly eccentric mother, a "Buddhist transcendentalist" who solicits healing clients in the local paper. (Losing her eyesight to macular degeneration, Mother—as Theroux calls her—forms a support group for herself and others in town with the same affliction. "I dubbed the group the 'Immaculate Degenerates,'" Theroux writes, "and the name stuck.")

There are meditations on friendship, money, children, and men, as well as writerly dispatches from such places as Big Sur, Venice, and Scotland's Isle of Mull. And when Theroux begins an unlikely, third-act courtship with an engineer from her adopted hometown, her giddiness is infectious—when she isn't fretting about their compatibility, that is. A left-leaning Democrat absorbed by the life of the mind, she describes her suitor as a Republican who "wasn't particularly at home in what he called my 'highly literate world.'" At the same time, "my brain wanted to explode when he tried to explain… mathematical formulas."

The Journal Keeper, it should be noted, is composed of actual journal entries, accompanied by the occasional present-day explanatory aside from the author. As such, the book lacks the shapeliness of a conventional memoir. It also feels too contemplative at times. If, per Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living, the overexamined life harbors perils of its own. Referring to herself, Theroux says, with some understatement, "Turning off the thinking mind remains elusive."

Such moments pass quickly. Theroux is mostly good company here, thanks in part to her bracing candor but also because of her ability to tease hope out of challenging circumstances. If she flirts with self-pity now and then, she also proves to be remarkably resilient. For all her laments about loneliness and loss, this is a woman with a strong backbone. "Every moment is a moment of choice," she writes, "whether to invest our lives with significance and love or not." As if to prove her point, she makes a life choice toward the end of the book that is palpably brave and hopeful.

For budding diarists, Theroux offers some guidance in a closing chapter called "If You Want to Keep a Journal." On the selection of a journal, she warns against "anything too fancy. The cover might intimidate you, [or] the paper may seem too expensive to ruin with your humble observations." On the subject of self-censorship, she notes that she is "not a fan of those who urge you to dump whatever comes to mind upon the page."

Instead, she urges, include what you think has real merit or lasting value; that gives your journal the potential to nourish you when you reread it down the road. For Theroux, her journal is like "a personal light box or cheering section." And who couldn't use either one of those?

Evelyn Renold, a writer and editor in New York City, was the executive editor of Lear's magazine and the senior deputy editor at Good Housekeeping. She previously reviewed Ben Yagoda's Memoir: A History for AARP The Magazine Online.