In an interview with Rappahannock Review, Holly Pelesky described the process of planning to write a memoir during her MFA program: “We discussed what it was I had to say and in doing so, recognized I stored my memories in objects or places—tangible places.” The resulting book, Cleave, is a memoir told through the form of letters to the daughter she placed up for adoption when she was a college undergraduate. Although Pelesky’s work fits within the long (and recently resurgent) tradition of the epistolary memoir, Cleave simultaneously offers a fresh and innovative take on the genre, thanks to Pelesky’s experiments with point of view, narrative tense, and verbal mood. The culminating effect of these experiments is a fractured and dreamlike text—an aesthetic that perfectly embodies Pelesky’s longing and trauma, her often circular process of grief and growth.
Pelesky’s formal experimentation is evident from the opening lines of the book’s first letter. “Say you just found out you’re pregnant, after your second time having sex,” she writes. “You were raised to be a virgin until marriage, then a wife, then a mother.” The unique blend of second-person point of view, present-tense narration, and the subjunctive mood places us, as readers, in an utterly improbable and difficult situation—something made especially clear by the reference to a rigid identity and life plan outlined in the second sentence. Throughout Cleave, Pelesky takes full advantage of the epistolary novel’s formal attributes by experimenting with its inherent interplay between first and second-person narration. In doing so, she causes her readers’ relationship to the text to constantly change. At times, the reader sits directly in the space of Pelesky’s “you,” while, at other times, one feels like a bystander listening to a conversation between Pelesky and her daughter, or like one is reading a diary.
As the letter progresses, Pelesky continues to play with this tension between the harsh structure of her sheltered upbringing and her efforts to live and dream outside of such confines. She writes of interacting with her mother after telling her she is pregnant: “she asks you what it’s like to be drunk. […] Tell her it’s like being someone else. But don’t tell her that it’s like being someone closer to yourself, someone you weren’t raised to be.” This shift from a question to a direct command leads the reader to ponder just what would have happened if Pelesky had been honest with her mother. Having grown up in a highly sheltered, fundamentalist Christian household, the newfound sense of freedom Pelesky feels due to alcohol, sex, and college life is forced to stay repressed in this conversation with her mother. Both Pelesky and the readers following her directions here will never know how her mother would have reacted to such honesty; however, throughout the book, we get to see Pelesky become more honest with herself and others, eventually leading a life more aligned with this true version of herself—one that is more carefree and open, as well as more expressive.
Despite its constant jumping through time, Cleave is grounded in a strong sense of place. For example, in “Nourishment,” Pelesky captures her haphazard lifestyle when she moved to Nebraska, immediately after putting her daughter up for adoption. In this letter, she spends time detailing her daily food items: “A twenty-four pack of Mug Root Beer takes up most of my refrigerator. For dinner, sometimes I make one of those prepackaged pastas, but usually I’m working at the Olive Garden. I often stop at McDonald’s on the way to work and get a number eight (chicken sandwich deluxe, crispy).” This reflection on the food in her own life leads, by the end of the letter, to her imagining the role of food in her daughter’s life: “I wonder if you had your first solid food today. If someone who loves you made silly faces as she pushed a baby spoon loaded with mashed potatoes toward you while you opened your mouth like a baby bird, accepting.” We, as readers, feel ourselves brought into aspects of motherhood that rarely get discussed: the often simultaneous sense of absence and connection, of longing and love. Pelesky brilliantly evokes these paradoxes through a focus on objects. By detailing tangible, material items, Pelesky not only gains fuller access to her own memories, but also brings herself closer to her daughter. Despite cultural differences and geographical distances, we all find our days largely oriented by spaces and objects. Pelesky focuses on this fact, using it as a tool to contemplate her daughter’s life. In the process, she retrieves glimpses of many of the experiences she missed with her daughter. She illustrates that sometimes what appears lost can, at least partially, be found again.
Cleave is addressed to Pelesky’s daughter, but it is equally an exploration of the author’s experiences and her ever-changing sense of self. The book’s epigraph shares the titular word’s two primary definitions: “to part or split” and “to remain attached, as to an idea, hope, memory.” By choosing a contronym as her title, and highlighting its status as such in Cleave’s epigraph, Pelesky offers us insight into the relationship between motherhood and self-actualization. She had to give her daughter up for adoption, to be split from her, due to many of her life circumstances and personal needs; and yet, she simultaneously needed, with every fiber of her being, to remain attached to her in some manner. The unfolding of this life-altering decision is, ultimately, what Cleave sets out to illustrate. Pelesky’s act of cleaving from her daughter, in order to mature and find herself, is what eventually allows her to cleave in another sense: to gain a newfound connection and attachment to her daughter.
As the book goes on, we learn more about Pelesky’s journey, her various jobs, her marriage, the birth of her two sons, and her subsequent divorce. We learn of the life she now has, and loves, with a new partner and his children in Nebraska. We learn about visits to see her daughter, the pain and beauty of watching her grow. We see Pelesky’s personal growth and maturity, her once restless life becoming quieter, more at peace, with time. The result is an extremely rewarding and moving read, one which explores what a life fully lived and examined might look like. Pelesky adds nuance to common discussions of motherhood by demonstrating how a woman who has given up her child for adoption can lead a meaningful life not in spite of this decision, but, in some cases, because of it.
While much of Cleave involves heartbreak and loss, there are also countless moments of beauty. Pelesky writes, in a letter titled “There Was Joy, Too:” “There was so much tenderness. Gracie. I’m telling you, there were people who were gentle with me. I melted into the sweet of their words, the warm of their arms.” With Cleave, Pelesky offers a powerful new addition to the memoir genre, perfectly balancing formal innovation with heartbreaking and moving reflections on what it means to be a mother and how to make a life that is truly one’s own.
By Holly Pelesky
Published August 23, 2022