Book Review: The Magic of Ordinary
January 11, 2021
magic of the ordinary book cover Ranjani Rao

The Magic of Ordinary


Melissa Gouty

A sweet story of growing up with siblings in a loving home where the father provides magic that turns ordinary events into extraordinary adventures. 

As a memoir writer and reader, in recent times, I have been disappointed with bestsellers which fall into one of two categories – a celebrity tell-all of a dysfunctional present or confessions of a regular person who describes a dysfunctional past often involving addiction or trauma. The former sells because of the person’s public status, the latter because it is a well-crafted story with a generous publicity budget. 

Gouty’s memoir does not fall into these categories. In fact, my initial impression in the early chapters – that it was a literary version of a TV show that I loved during the years I lived in the US, The Wonder Years – remained unchanged when I got to the end of the book. 

Nostalgic ride to a simpler time

Vivid descriptions of a simple American childhood spent riding bicycles in a neighbourhood where kids spend time outdoors playing games, swimming, and engaging with the community (a rare sight in today’s digital world), made me envious and yearn for the ‘good old days’. 

From removing warts on full moon nights with magic chants, to delivering her sister in their own home, Gouty’s father, Melford Johnson, was not just the fun and handy ‘Daddy’ she knew but also a devoted husband, loving friend, and a cheerful person who told tall tales, sang with abandon, tended earnestly to a flourishing garden, and volunteered at church for years after his retirement.

His insistence that his daughters master three skills – typing (for employment), driving (for independence) and swimming (for joy) reveal a pragmatist in action albeit one who still held on to a phenomenal zest for life for eight seven years.

Primed to look for drama in the narrative arc, I kept my eyes open for a shocking scene or a twist in what seemed to be an ordinary tale of a happy family. I must admit that I was relieved by the absence of alcoholism, abuse, trauma and terror in Gouty’s life. With her two sisters, Gouty’s childhood which seems idyllic in many ways, is also a story that many of us who have had normal childhoods with responsible parents and supportive families can relate to.

Of all the little details that make the book come alive, my favorite was the epigraph of each chapter.  Some are quotes by well-known authors but others are excerpts from letters that Gouty’s father wrote over the years, a touch that makes the book much more personal.

The universality of the human experience

While my childhood in India was very different from what Gouty has described, my parents followed the same philosophy as Gouty’s – “we-gave-you-wings-now-go-fly.” I could see glimpses of my father in many of the episodes, particularly when he supports Gouty’s decision for a divorce despite his own experience of a long stable marriage to her mother. 

Gouty’s writing is evocative, honest, and free of prescriptive advice. She invites readers to relive her childhood and succeeds in highlighting the universality of the human experience that transcends many of the artificial barriers that we sometimes hide behind. 

Gouty’s statement – “In his (her father’s) mind, there was a kind of magic in being ordinary. Average, common people, not upper-crust, but not trampled on. Neither arrogant, nor despairing. Just people accepting who they were and what they had. Dealing with it and moving on,” are a true reflection of my thoughts. 

I laughed at the chapter about her father making not just a snowman but an entire family of snow-critters, and delighted in tales of her father’s adventures exploring sinkholes and caves with his buddies. The moving description of the last days of her father’s life made me teary as I thought back to the time I lost my father.

Why we need to believe in magic

Gouty answers her question – ‘what happens when equal parts generosity and kindness are mixed with abundant joy’ – with a simple conclusion, a person is born who loves doing good deeds.

Melford Jonhson was undoubtedly an ordinary man, but he was also a very special one whose authenticity exemplified a life of purpose, something everyone can aspire to be. The legacy and proof of being raised by a good role model lies in this unexpectedly satisfying father-daughter story that can make you believe in magic. 

I received an ARC of the book from the author at the end of a year marked by the Covid-19 pandemic. I could not have picked a better book to end the year on a positive note.

My opinion: Highly recommended The Magic of Ordinary if you are a memoir lover who loves a feel-good story.

Have you read other feel-good memoirs that you would recommend?

Photo credit: Ranjani Rao‘s personal archives

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