WASHINGTON — Suppose life were a quilt. Not just any quilt, but a grand and crazy quilt, its odd pieces coming together in patterns of bright surprise.
Imagine life as many beginnings and many endings--like the pieces of a quilt that can fit into a satisfying and creative whole.
If the notion sounds intriguing, then welcome to the circle. The idea of life as a work in progress is suddenly popular, thanks to author Mary Catherine Bateson and a slim volume of unusual biography.
Two years after its debut, "Composing a Life," Bateson's book about five women (including herself), is climbing best-seller lists. And, like a precious heirloom, the book is being passed from woman to woman.
Readers meet Johnnetta Cole, the first black woman president of Atlanta's Spelman College; Joan Erikson, an artist in her 80s and quiet collaborator of psychologist husband Erik; Alice d'Entremont, an electrical engineer who worked on Skylab, and Ellen Bassuk, a psychiatrist who helps the homeless.
The loves and lives of this quartet are woven throughout as Bateson, who profiles herself along the way, seeks to show how women go about composing their lives.
Each of the women has suffered sorrows, stunning blows that sent them reeling--the death of a child, the loss of a lover--and the common career sacrifices many women make for family. But each of the women adapted and was changed forever in the process.
Together, they witness the truth to Bateson's observation that "of any stopping point in life, it is good to ask whether it will be a good place from which to go on, as well as a good place to remain."
Since the hardcover went out of print and the book was issued in paperback last fall, the book has set off a series of small explosions in the literary world.
"Reading 'Composing a Life' made me gnash my teeth and weep," confessed feminist author Jane O'Reilly in a New York Times review. The book "offers nothing less than a radical rethinking of the concept of achievement," crowed the San Francisco Chronicle.
In a column on Jane Pauley's job changes, Ellen Goodman invokes the book as "a reverie," and Bill Moyers, a minister-turned-publisher-turned public TV guru, holds it up as a bible for both sexes, noting, "Everyone can gain from this book--\o7 me \f7 especially."
Its publishers--surprised by the book's popularity--insist without exaggeration that the book is "changing lives."
"The first three people I lent this book to left or changed their jobs shortly after reading it," said Rachel Klayman, senior editor at Plume Publishing, which put out the paperback. "It inspires readers to take the usual roadblocks and detours and turn them into opportunities for remaking your life."
The book's hardcover publisher issued 20,000 copies. Another 53,000 paperbacks have been printed, and another printing is planned.
"The popularity of this book is almost entirely due to word-of-mouth recommendations. Not tours, not advertising," said Klayman.
Ann Godoff, editor-in-chief of Atlantic Monthly Press, edited both "Composing a Life" in hardcover and the wildly popular feminist manual, "The New Our Bodies, Our Selves." Both books, she says, have engendered "that sort of cult feeling that comes with a new approach, with the idea that you can change women's lives."
From quiet reading circles in Georgetown to group houses in Santa Cruz, the book has been embraced for offering women--and men, if they want it--a kinder, gentler definition of what constitutes a successful life.
On a sunny morning outside the Beltway, Mary Catherine Bateson is making coffee, baking croissants, talking on the telephone--"No, I really don't see how I can go to Africa just now"--and entertaining a guest.
She is, of course, distracted. And that's her point.
"What I've argued more and more strongly since the book came out is that having to pay attention to more than one thing at a time, thinking about relationships, family, children, as well as about work--and not being able to turn it off--means that women have a capacity for complexity that men have not been encouraged to develop."
At 51, Bateson, daughter of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, has had a lifetime of divided attentions. At various times, she has led the life of traditional wife and mother, of linguist, of scholar, of anthropologist, of teacher and of author.
She and husband Barkev Kassarjian and daughter Vanni lived several years in Iran, where he taught and she did research. When the Iranian revolution forced them out, both lost years of work--and everything they owned.
Years later, with the family living in Boston, Bateson was named dean of faculty at Amherst College on the other side of the state. Kassarjian stayed behind to continue his work. "It turned out his idea of being together was weekend commuting," she writes, "which left me running a single-parent household."