If you haven’t yet come across Mélanie Berliet’s work, I recommend you do so at once. If you have, you will most likely have enjoyed a whole host of the unique (and often hilarious) adventures she has thrown herself into as an immersive journalist: working as a sex phone operator and a lap dancer, dealing prescription drugs through Craigslist, posing as a naked sushi model, and dating “sugar daddies,“ to name just a few. What you may not know is that behind her career as a successful writer of all things quirky, lies a profound struggle and a life-altering tragedy.
From quitting her job as a Wall Street trader cold turkey in pursuit of a pie-in-the sky dream, to falling in love with a married man—all to the tune of her sister’s slow death from alcoholism—Mélanie shares her story with the relentless courage and refreshing honesty that make her so good at what she does.
Surviving In Spirit is a tale of two sisters—Mélanie (aka Stinky) and Céline (aka Bird)—charging down very different paths in tandem, both with reckless abandon. We jump back and forth through a patchwork of carefully chosen memories as the strands of these sisters’ stories interweave—one ending in triumph, and the other in death.
Mélanie is traipsing the grueling path of a 20-something female bond trader in New York City—offering some interesting insights on earning more money than she knows what to do with, but having no time to spend it—before pulling a career U-turn with no writing experience, no network, and a fast dwindling bank account.
As we later come to see, it is her older sister’s spectacular waste of life that ultimately drives Mélanie to sacrifice a cushy job and embark on becoming a writer. The transition is a giddy comedown from boardrooms, spreadsheets and Jimmy Choo’s to frequent rejection, credit card debt, and her amusing refusal to wear a bra.
Céline, meanwhile, is a highly intelligent and much loved Latin teacher and PhD student with the world at her feet—the archetypal oldest sibling—who is sinking fast into the depths of alcoholism. The shocking descent of her sister’s health is handled frankly, interjected with moments of delicate humor and peppered with the sort of keenly observed details with which Mélanie is so masterful.
For anyone who has known a severe alcoholic, Mélanie’s description of the glaze coating her sister’s eyes as “transparent, but impossible to see through” is spot on. For anyone who has siblings, the subtle truths of those relationships, which are “never more than a few milliseconds of warmth beyond repair,” will ring true. And for anyone who has lost someone: “At once, the void is evident. Nothing matters—and yet everything does…”
Celine’s death is terribly, terribly sad and triggers a wealth of questions about the nature of her all-too-common affliction, thoughts that continue to tease long after the book has been put down. If anything remotely good sprung from Celine’s untimely demise, it was what Mélanie learned from it: In her own words, that “Life is beautifully short, and fragile as fuck.”
Gripping from the first page, beautifully written, and thought provoking throughout, Surviving In Spirit is a dazzling memoir, an ultimately uplifting story and a truly valuable read.
Release Date: January 28th, 2014 by Thought Catalog
Availability: Amazon, iBooks, Google Play, KobO