Some of the best autobiographies (Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt and Wild Swans by Jung Chang, for example) are by people whose greatest claim to fame is the very writing of that autobiography. The less well-known the person is beforehand, the more need there is for the work to be interesting in its own right. By contrast, autobiographies by people who are already famous often turn out to be incredibly dull or self-serving – or both!
Happily, the former is the case with The Gypsy Saw Two Lives. It is gripping and moving; even as a reviewer, I found it hard to put down and ended up staying up late to finish it. Most of us who come to know the author, Rodica Mihalis, will, most likely, do so through her account of her own life (the title comes from an incident in the story where she had her fortune told by a gypsy).
Mihailis’s story begins in Romania in the 1950s. She skillfully recounts her childhood, while avoiding too much re-interpretation through the lens of history and adulthood. At this time, Romania is languishing under a repressive communist regime. In those days Rodica, an only child, lived with her parents in a one-room apartment with no private toilet. And yet, by the standards of the time, the family were relatively privileged: her mother was an ophthalmologist and her father was a counsellor in the Ministry of Agriculture.
She recounts anecdotes of her early years – including the arrival and departure of a succession of nannies – in a style of childlike innocence. Then, as she grows, coping with the growing pains of adolescence, as well as her father’s heavy drinking and violence, her style develops too; it is almost as if the reader grows with her. She marries very young, with consequences that will become apparent later. Upon finishing school she finds work, first with an American journalist and his wife, then in the American Embassy. She writes with charming naivety of her American friends and colleagues before going on to describe the trauma of her mother’s cancer surgery and how Bucharest was visited by an earthquake immediately afterwards. Now, we see a woman of compassion and courage.
Soon after, she decides to defect to the United States, a decision that will test her mettle and determination to the utmost. However, thanks to the kindness of her former journalist employers, she finds her way there and ultimately finds work selling insurance. Her accounts of coming to terms with American ways are often amusing, though less so when she has to cope with being robbed or having her car towed. Worse lies ahead; instead of following her to the States, as originally planned, her husband announces that he is with someone else and files for divorce.
Although the “two lives” of the title – and the two parts of the book – refer to her time in Romania and the United States respectively, the latter is the more complex personal journey; one that of itself involves several phases or re-inventions of herself. To begin with, in the wake of her divorce, she seeks out new relationships and, after many false starts, marries a man from an “old American” family to whom she bears two daughters. It is the subsequent part of the book that is, in many ways, the most compelling, as she copes with the slow decline of her marriage, financial difficulties, and illness before reinventing herself one more time as a graduate student in counseling and clinical psychology. She also revisits Romania after the fall of Ceausescu and is agog at the changes she sees there.
What inspired me most about this book was Mihailis’s courage and resilience. Amidst periods of fleeting happiness, she endures severe trials but always comes through with hardly a trace of self-pity. Her sense of humour and her innate, unassuming charm shine through her prose. The Gypsy Saw Two Lives is a reminder that all our lives are extraordinary in their own way but that, above all, they are what we make of them.