Gimme Shelter by Mary Elizabeth Williams

Posted: August 10, 2009 in Book Reviews
Tags: , , ,


Homeownership constitutes a good portion of the American Dream.  It represents a transitional stage in people’s lives, moving from the temporary lifestyle of renting to the permanence of buying.  It’s an investment—both financially and in terms of family security.  Mary Elizabeth Williams includes all of these as reasons for why she wants to own a home in her debut memoir, Gimme Shelter.  But what’s made just as clear during this three-year period is the desire for her and her family to find a place to call home that represents their personality.

Originally from New Jersey, Williams had visions of living in New York City.  Before the dot-com boom of the mid-nineties relocated her to San Francisco, she lived across the river from NYC and described its distance from her as being “light years” away.  When the dot-com bubble burst, she and her husband moved to Brooklyn to start a family.  They knew that New York was where they wanted to establish themselves and figured the money they were pumping into rent would be better served going toward a more permanent investment. However, home values in the neighborhood where they lived and wanted to stay began rising steadily.  They were being priced out of the area they had called home since 1999.

The decision to leave the area, or move completely out of the city, seems logical.  If you can’t afford to live where you want, look elsewhere.  But that’s not how Williams sees it.  When pondering the idea of returning to New Jersey, she writes, “In my mind, if I move back to exactly where I clawed my way out of, I haven’t gone anywhere in my life at all.”  She knows for sure that she must stay in the city, but where-to becomes a large obstacle.  As Williams explains, “In New York, if you live off your friends’ nearest subway line, or anywhere that involves crossing a park, body of water, or from east to west, you will never ever see them.”  People are a big part of what makes a location.

It’s easy to empathize with the frustrations she experiences—the lack of adequate homes for sale in the area, financial woes, a pregnancy, and the various hoops one has to jump through when trying to obtain a mortgage—all of which contribute to delaying her and her family from reaching their goal.  The entire process envelops her, creating emotional strain and causing her to doubt whether or not to continue house hunting. Anytime a setback or thoughts about leaving New York occur, Williams weaves in a friend’s story that applies to the situation.

These anecdotes seem to help reaffirm her desire to live in New York and provide a certain level of comfort to her.  Knowing that she’s experiencing stress and anxiety about this transition similar to what others have felt helps her maintain a level of sanity that might otherwise vanish.  She also contrasts the friends’ situations—involving divorce, expanding families, 9/11, and even hurricane Katrina—to hers.  In light of her friends’ circumstances, Williams realizes that her family’s situation is different.  They are as much a part of New York as it is of them.

You can make the best of what’s inside four walls, but what characterizes your place in the world is what greets you when you step outside.  It’s like the old guy I overheard in the deli once.  “Leave?” he’d said.  “I need my track.  I need my bookies.”  For Mike and Deb and their sons, it’s the lawn and this swing set and this hammock.  For us it’s the throb of humanity, viewed from a stoop.

Williams does a wonderful job of pinpointing the locations of neighborhoods in the city, describing them in detail, and providing enough background information on them to give the reader a sense of their cultural and economic importance to the narrative.  And more importantly, she gains the readers trust.  Her responses to adversity feel genuine, likely because the insight she offers isn’t predictable.  She candidly shares a wide range of emotion throughout the book, which made me root for her every step of the way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s