A Journalist Turns the Lens on Her Life and Loves

By Susan Comninos

Published February 27, 2004, issue of February 27, 2004.
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Five Men Who Broke My Heart: A Memoir

By Susan Shapiro

Delacorte Press, 240 pages, $21.95.

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When journalists who have spent years telling other people’s stories turn the literary lens on their own lives, something interesting is bound to happen. In 1996, NPR commentator Marion Winik, at 37, walked a terra firma of tragedy in “First Comes Love,” her memoir of her gay husband’s AIDS-related death. Then last year, on the cusp of his 41st birthday, former New York Times reporter Rick Marin mined his erotic past in “Cad: Confessions of a Toxic Bachelor,” his memoir of prospecting for love in many a woman’s bedroom. Now, freelance journalist Susan Shapiro plants her diarist’s flag inside the borders of comedy with “Five Men Who Broke My Heart,” her witty tale of five loves gone wrong — and one gone right. But whereas Winik and Marin presented their memoirs as moving or sexy true stories, Shapiro’s reads more like a creative construal of that pivotal time: turning 40.

“Six months before my fortieth birthday, I was staggering through a vulnerable stretch of midlife crises,” she explains, calling the time “my ‘no-book-no-baby-summer.’” When her tale begins, she has just received two faxes: one from her agent, listing five publishers that passed on her novel: the other from her gynecologist, noting that tests on her husband, Aaron, a workaholic sitcom-writer, show him to be almost sterile. Shapiro fires both faxes down the incinerator chute.

Many readers will sympathize. Still, unruly sperm, a distracted mate and a languishing novel seem more like the blots on her downtown journalist’s life than the stuff of a great memoir. Fortunately, Shapiro agrees, and she switches her memoir’s focus to a new quest: buttonholing her former lovers about why the relationships went sour. This project makes for fun reading. But it may puzzle those looking for a clear narrative link between cause and effect.

Even Shapiro, disinterested in divorcing her husband, seems bemused by her pull toward old loves, and test-drives possible motives: “God was telling me it was time to come to terms with my ill-spent youth,” she speculates. “Or was I torturing myself by revisiting the potent sperm that got away?” she muses. “More likely I was bored,” she finally admits, “and masturbating with my past was more fun than working.”

She starts by profiling her old flame Brad, a biologist with a new self-help book to promote. After a decade of silence, however, Brad’s call for her help — on the same day she received the disappointing faxes — feels contrived (especially since Shapiro’s own author’s note acknowledges that she fudged chronology.) Their reunion does give Shapiro a chance to let fly some marvelous punch lines. Still, readers will wonder: Why would she want to see such an oaf again? Partly, Shapiro is eager for a new story to write (remember, she’s a freelancer). Plus, Brad’s morphing into an author gives her competitive juices a jolt. “Why did he get to publish a book?” she asks. “I didn’t invade his space by curing cancer.”

Her book’s title notwithstanding, what Shapiro seems to want most is to win the heartbreaker sash and crown. As a rule, her prior romances dissolved when her lovers launched affairs in the next room, beyond their shared apartment or on a theater set. Yet she decides that she spurred the splits. “I believed that I’d controlled it all subconsciously, I’d written the script,” Shapiro says of one beau’s defection.

To maintain her revisionist view requires some knotty logic. Did George, the outer-borough theater professor, leave her for an actress in his play? Yes, but Shapiro staged the breakup by denigrating Brooklyn. Did Shapiro’s first love hit on her college pals? Sure, but she “threw David at [her] friends Nicole and Kyla, who looked hot in their miniskirts and tight tank tops.” Even Shapiro’s therapist begs to differ. “He could have just gone home,” she suggests. “He didn’t have to sleep with both of them.”

In the end, Shapiro’s book seems less a true account of her marriage (or other relationships) than a retort to hurts inflicted by time and bad love. Her book is deft, diverting and laugh-out-loud funny, but, as its author’s note acknowledges, the preservation of its “literary cohesion,” among other things, trumped its imperative to adhere to the facts.

If not a faithful memoir, what Shapiro’s book can be called is an unguent indicated for an aching ego, a pleasurable salve made from memory and fiction.

Susan Comninos has contributed reviews to the Boston Phoenix, New York Sun and JBooks.com. Her poetry has appeared in Lilith, Tikkun and Midstream, among others.

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