T here are times when there’s a book we know we want to read, but it somehow gets away from us. Or when a second reading gives us a fresh take on what the author has to say. Tomorrow’s paperback release of Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is the perfect occasion for another look at this unexpectedly quirky memoir.

Personal accounts of devastating emotional loss, illness, and other adversities—and the writer’s eventual triumph over them—are a booming subset of contemporary women’s literature. But don’t let the ‘Mennonite’ in the title fool you. Uplift is not what this book is peddling, unless it’s the push-up bra variety. Janzen is an over-40 voice for our times: smart, salty, with the admirable ability to cut to the heart of things while making you hoot with laughter.

From the bones of her story, you wouldn’t think so. Reeling from the end of a long and difficult marriage (her manic-depressive husband left her for a man he met online), incapacitated by a horrific car crash, at age 43, Janzen—a college professor—goes home to recuperate with her Mennonite parents in California. As a teenager, she’d lit out of their religious community like the proverbial bat, thirsting for Manolo Blahniks, short skirts, and really big hair. Up to the car crash, she’d been perfectly happy never to look back.

But as she tells it, the months of healing give her a newfound appreciation for her parents—her stolid, caring father and resilient, mischievously flatulent mother—and the values she’d grown up with. At the same time, she can’t help but bring her own cosmopolitan edge to the experience. Describing her father, a onetime head of the North American Mennonite Conference, as “the Mennonite equivalent of the pope,” she adds, “but in plaid shorts and black dress socks pulled up snugly along the calf.” As a theologian, she says, he “believes in a loving God, a servant heart, and a senior discount. Would God be pleased if we spent an unnecessary thirty-one cents at McDonald’s? I think not.”

Snarky? Well, yes. But that wry, arms-length perspective in no way masks Janzen’s abiding affection for her parents and sister (less so for her strictly Mennonite brothers), and a growing reconciliation with—and acceptance of—her own roots. For outsiders, Janzen is an idiosyncratic, informative guide to the Mennonite world, explaining the intricacies of religious philosophy, clothing, and cuisine (“Borscht is the Mennonite catnip”) with equal aplomb. She relishes this role so much that the book includes an appendix, “A Mennonite History Primer,” covering topics like “The Sing-along” and “Genetic Pinkness.”

As her sojourn at home draws to a close, Janzen is surprised to find herself having a fling with a sexy Mennonite 17 years her junior. Even so, in this book happily-ever-after comes, not with a motorcycle-Mennonite Prince Charming, but with Janzen returning to her own life, renewed and reconnected to the world. To both worlds, in fact.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen (Henry Holt, 2009; Holt Paperbacks, 2010).

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