In Review

Smile by Sarah Ruhl: a ‘winning combination of wisdom and erudition’

US playwright’s memoir is both ‘moving’ and ‘beautifully written’

The morning after the US playwright Sarah Ruhl gave birth to twins in 2010, she was told by a lactation consultant that one of her eyes looked droopy, said Heidi Moss Erickson in The Washington Post. When she looked in the mirror, she was shocked by what she saw: “The left side of my face had fallen down.”

Then in her mid-30s, Ruhl had been struck with Bell’s palsy, a “fairly common” type of paralysis caused by nerve damage to one side of the face. Bell’s is usually temporary, but sometimes it persists for years.

Ruhl was one of the unlucky ones: for the next decade, she couldn’t smile at all, and today her face remains “asymmetric”. In her “moving” and “beautifully written memoir”, Ruhl explores the impact of the condition both on her sense of identity, and on her wider interactions with the world.

Ruhl’s career was thriving when Bell’s struck, said Alice O’Keeffe in The Guardian: one of her plays had just been nominated for a Tony. But she soon felt robbed of a key component of her armoury. At a photo shoot for nominees, photographers yelled to her on the red carpet: “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you smile for your Tony Award?”

No less “torturous” were the personal implications – especially the effect upon her children. How, she wondered, would they “know that their mother loves and delights in them” if they could never see her smile?

This book is much more than “just a medical memoir”. Ruhl ponders hard, quasi-philosophical questions – such as whether one can truly experience joy without smiling – but also writes well about the “chaos of her family life, in which theatre rewrites are cut short because all three children are vomiting”. With a “winning combination of wisdom and erudition”, Ruhl retraces a “journey many of us can relate to”.

Bodley Head 256pp £16.99; The Week Bookshop £13.99

Smile
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To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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