Reviews for Smile : the story of a face

Kirkus
Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A diligent search for self through years of affliction. Award-winning playwright Ruhl, a MacArthur fellow and two-time Pulitzer finalist, was pregnant when she opened a fortune cookie that contained a cryptic message: “Deliver that what is inside you, and it will save your life.” What was inside her turned out to be much more than fraternal twins. In a wise, intimate, and moving memoir, the author recounts a decade of illness, recovery, and self-transformation that followed her pregnancy. It began the day after delivering the twins, when the left side of her face became paralyzed; she had developed Bell’s palsy, a rare condition of nerve damage. She could not blink her left eye and, equally devastating, she could not smile. Although most people recover from Bell’s palsy within months, Ruhl’s persisted, causing not only physical discomforts—she had trouble eating and enunciating—but psychological and emotional distress. “Is the self the face?” she wondered as she became increasingly depressed at the facial asymmetry that seemed to her so “ugly.” Although she had considered herself a person of little vanity, now she “veered dangerously close to self-pity” and also self-blame for not getting better. Ruhl engagingly reports on her interactions with a host of therapists and medical practitioners—some brusque and dismissive, some caring and helpful; she even sought advice from a Tibetan lama. Sometimes, she admits, “I felt like anatomy rather than a whole.” A positive test for celiac disease helped to explain why nerve growth was inhibited, but it still took years before she could produce a semblance of a smile. Within her chronicle of illness, the author deftly weaves memories of her father; thoughts about motherhood, friendship, writing; and perceptive reflections about the meaning of smiling, especially for women. “I thought I could not truly reenter the world until I could smile again,” she writes; “and yet, how could I be happy enough to smile again when I couldn’t reenter the world?” A captivating, insightful memoir. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Best known as a mega award-winning playwright, Ruhl (44 Poems for You, 2020) is also a MacArthur “Genius,” Yale professor, poet, and author. Her memoir is an utter gift—no superlatives are enough; no review can communicate its resonating efficacy. Just after Ruhl found out she was having twins, she met her husband for lunch and ended their meal with a prescient fortune cookie: “Deliver that what is inside you, and it will save your life.” Parsing its full meaning would require a decade. That fall, the day after her first Broadway opening, breakthrough bleeding required bed rest; “boredom and entropy” ensued. Complications didn’t stop, including a supremely rare disease that caused early labor. Both children came out “perfect,” but the next day, the left side of Ruhl’s face fell down: “eyebrow, fallen; eyelid, fallen; lip fallen, frozen, immovable.” Bell’s Palsy was diagnosed, and although 95 percent got better in a year, Ruhl would have to navigate 10 years of seemingly endless specialists, therapists, and miracle workers to smile again. Recognizing her own self becomes a stupendous, raw, funny, piercing, brilliant journey. Ciphering her work for the stage, Ruhl makes sure her words on the page are part spotlighted monologue, part family album, part BFF confession, part unguarded reveals. Indeed, audiences are guaranteed a standing-ovation-worthy production.


Publishers Weekly
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

In this stunning work, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ruhl (44 Poems for You) reflects on her long and arduous battle with Bell’s palsy after giving birth to twins. For about 85% of people, Bell’s palsy, a weakness in facial muscles, lasts for three months or less, yet for an unlucky 5%, it can be long-term. For Ruhl, the condition has persisted for more than a decade. In a series of insightful and witty essays, she provides an unvarnished look at coming to terms with a face that’s paralyzed on one side (“Kissing with one eye open isn’t exactly a peril, but it is strange”); the postpartum depression she dealt with after a complicated pregnancy; and a celiac disease diagnosis that made her give up her beloved bagels. Ruhl juggled all this while simultaneously working in theater and mothering three children under the age of five with her husband. “My years of writing plays tells me that a story requires an apotheosis, a sudden transformation,” she muses. “But my story has been so slow... the nature of the chronic, which resists plot and epiphany.” As she recounts learning to find joy in small things—such as regaining the ability to blink—Ruhl proves that even life at its most mundane can be fascinating. This incredibly inspiring story offers hope where it’s least expected. (Oct.)


Kirkus
Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A diligent search for self through years of affliction.Award-winning playwright Ruhl, a MacArthur fellow and two-time Pulitzer finalist, was pregnant when she opened a fortune cookie that contained a cryptic message: Deliver that what is inside you, and it will save your life. What was inside her turned out to be much more than fraternal twins. In a wise, intimate, and moving memoir, the author recounts a decade of illness, recovery, and self-transformation that followed her pregnancy. It began the day after delivering the twins, when the left side of her face became paralyzed; she had developed Bells palsy, a rare condition of nerve damage. She could not blink her left eye and, equally devastating, she could not smile. Although most people recover from Bells palsy within months, Ruhls persisted, causing not only physical discomfortsshe had trouble eating and enunciatingbut psychological and emotional distress. Is the self the face? she wondered as she became increasingly depressed at the facial asymmetry that seemed to her so ugly. Although she had considered herself a person of little vanity, now she veered dangerously close to self-pity and also self-blame for not getting better. Ruhl engagingly reports on her interactions with a host of therapists and medical practitionerssome brusque and dismissive, some caring and helpful; she even sought advice from a Tibetan lama. Sometimes, she admits, I felt like anatomy rather than a whole. A positive test for celiac disease helped to explain why nerve growth was inhibited, but it still took years before she could produce a semblance of a smile. Within her chronicle of illness, the author deftly weaves memories of her father; thoughts about motherhood, friendship, writing; and perceptive reflections about the meaning of smiling, especially for women. I thought I could not truly reenter the world until I could smile again, she writes; and yet, how could I be happy enough to smile again when I couldnt reenter the world?A captivating, insightful memoir. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Pulitzer Prize and Tony-nominated playwright Ruhl (The Clean House) takes readers behind the scenes in this intimate memoir about developing Bell's palsy, which partially paralyzed her face, after pregnancy complications. Much of the book is about questioning societal expectations for the beauty and expressiveness of a woman's face. Will Ruhl's small children understand their mother's motives? Will the male gaze recategorize her as a difficult or cold woman? Will every act require a double consciousness of how one feels versus how they may be perceived? She narrates a journey of healing and self-acceptance in elegant chapters that evoke a monologue or one-act play, and brings readers into the scene while also giving them a front-row seat to her inner dialogue. Readers will quickly accept Ruhl as she is but also appreciate the journey it takes for Ruhl to accept herself. Family photos throughout add a personal touch. VERDICT A moving, insightful account that will appeal to many readers, especially those who like memoir. It will particularly engage readers interested in reflections on women in society or self-acceptance, and, of course, fans of Ruhl's plays.—Kelly Karst, California Inst. of Integral Studies, San Francisco

Back