Marina Keegan, a talented writer with a promising future, graduated from Yale in May 2012. She has already won multiple writing awards, been published in many prestigious publications and had a highly coveted job at the New Yorker lined up. Tragically, five days later she died in a car crash, and The Opposite of Loneliness is a posthumous collection of her essays and stories, including the title essay, which went viral shortly after her death.
This was quite a departure from the norm for me, as I don’t often read short story collections, or non-fiction essays, but I actually really enjoyed this book. There can be no doubt that Marina Keegan was an exceptionally talented writer, which only lends more tragedy to her death, and her unfulfilled potential. In fact this was one of those reads which as a writer makes you feel horribly inadequate. Marina was my age or younger when she wrote all of the pieces in this collection, yet her writing seems like that of an incredibly advanced and much older writer (whilst still encapsulating the experience of being young).
The book opens with a touching introduction by Marina’s teacher, friend and mentor from Yale, Anne Fadiman, who paints a picture of her as a vibrant, inquisitive and charming young woman. The book then begins with Marina’s final essay, ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, which was originally published in the 2012 graduation edition of the Yale Daily News.
To be honest, despite my love of this book, ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’ really wasn’t my favourite piece. One of the few downsides of this book for me was my inability to relate to Marina in some ways (namely through background), and this was most evident in ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, which reads like a commencement speech for the 2012 Yale graduates. It reflects on the students’ time at Yale, and what they could go on to achieve in the future, and whilst I’m a strong believer that anyone who works hard enough can achieve what they want, I’d imagine it’s a lot easier to do with the kind of connections most Yale graduates would likely have. And as for that feeling of ‘the opposite of loneliness’ that is the focus of the essay – I can’t say that I’ve ever felt it. As someone who was the shy kid who got bullied at school and and went to a local university (moving in with a bunch of strangers sounds like my idea of hell!), the feeling of having a ridiculous number of friends and constantly being surrounded by people is not an experience I have personally ever had. However, my inability to relate on points isn’t really so much a criticism of the book as a circumstance that occasionally hampered my reading of it, and seen as this particular essay was specifically about Yale and directed at its’ graduates, it is probably unsurprising that I couldn’t fully relate to it. Regardless of this, the essay itself was well-crafted and full of hope, which in light of Marina’s tragic death is all the more poignant.
The next section was the fiction, and contained nine short stories. I thoroughly enjoyed most of them, but my favourites were probably ‘The Emerald City’, which took the interesting format of a collection of emails, and ‘Challenger Deep’, which was a haunting tale about a group of people trapped on a submarine. There were a couple that I didn’t like quite so much, as I wasn’t really sure where they were going, but they were all beautifully written, and contained some pretty profound insights on everything from youth, to love, parenthood and even death.
The next section contained eight of Marina’s essays, and there were some very interesting and insightful pieces. If anything, I think I enjoyed this section more than the fiction, which I didn’t really expect as I don’t usually read many personal essays.
My favourites were definitely the first two: ‘Stability in Motion’ and ‘Why We Care About Whales’. ‘Stability in Motion’ was one I could actually massively relate to, as she talks about the first car that she had growing up, and all the adventures it went on, and monumental things it witnessed. Having just sold the car I had throughout my time at college and university, I can really relate to the kind of sentimentality attached to a car owned during such a momentous point in a person’s life – the point where they are growing up and becoming independent.
I felt that ‘Why We Care About Whales’ made some pretty interesting comments about why we care so much about saving whales when there are millions of people in the world who need saving, and I loved how she skilfully interwove facts with personal anecdotes. The ending I found to be particularly poignant, as she has previously made some great points about how we should focus our charity more on people than on whales, yet when she is faced with one nearing the end of its life it affects her greatly, and the ending is left kind of ambiguous as to whether she truly agrees with her own logical assertions.
Overall I found this to be a very interesting and inspiring book. Marina’s incredible writing talent and great insights shine through her work, and it’s very sad to think of what she could have gone on to do had she not tragically died so young. The book can be hard to read at times, as it’s so focused on youth and the possibilities of the future, and it’s hard to know that Marina Keegan’s future was cut short. However, her writing is truly an inspiration and this book just goes to show what can be achieved, even in such a short time on this earth, if you seize life the way it seems she did.