Review: The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan - Life is too short for 'what could have been'

Thursday, 26 July 2018

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
Released: 1st August 2015
Published by: Simon and Schuster
Genre: Short Stories/Essays
Source: Bought
Pages: 208
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Marina Keegan's star was on the rise when she graduated from Yale in May 2012. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at the New Yorker.

Tragically, five days after graduation, Marina died in a car crash. As her family, friends and classmates, deep in grief, joined to create a memorial service for Marina, her unforgettable last essay for the Yale Daily News, The Opposite of Loneliness, went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits. She had struck a chord.

Even though she was just 22 when she died, Marina left behind a rich, expansive trove of prose that, like her title essay, captures the hope, uncertainty and possibility of her generation. The Opposite of Loneliness is an assemblage of Marina's essays and stories that articulates the universal struggle we all face as we work out what we aspire to be and how we can harness our talents to make an impact on the world. 
Of course, there are things we wish we’d done: our readings, that boy across the hall. We’re our own hardest critics and it’s easy to let ourselves down. Sleeping too late. Procrastinating. Cutting corners. More than once I’ve looked back on my high school self and thought: how did I do that? How did I work so hard? Our private insecurities follow us and will always follow us.

The Opposite of Loneliness speaks to our generation of twenty-somethings who are trying to find their place in the world. Published in the wake of a tragedy, it's of course devastating to see a young life full of promise end far too soon. But there is some solace to be found in the fact that Marina's essays and stories live on, a testament to her writing which displayed an understanding of life well beyond her years.

But the thing is, we’re all like that…we have these impossibly high standards and we’ll probably never live up to our perfect fantasies of our future selves. But I feel like that’s okay. We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time.

In reading this collection, I remember thinking to myself how true this is. Marina Keegan's words in the first essay capture exactly how it feels to be on the cusp of 'adult' life; restlessness, uncertainty, and a sense of urgency to do more. Be better. Thrive. As her mentor and professor at Yale Anne Fadiman wrote in the introduction, when deciding what the focus of her work would be, Marina "understood that there were few better subjects than being young and uncertain and starry-eyed and frustrated and hopeful.” Yet aside from the non-fiction, there is so much versatility in her writing, and her short stories also hold some memorable themes. In 'Cold Pastoralism' for example, the opening lines describe the awkward fragility of a relationship when the emotional investment is becoming all too real:

We were in the stage where we couldn’t make serious eye contact for fear of implying we were too invested. We used euphemisms like “I miss you” and “I like you” and smiled every time our noses got too close.

I can imagine that her personality shines in every sentence that she wrote, and where there is heartache in her stories there is also warmth and keen observations into what makes people tick. It is so relatable to come across a writer who was at the same crossroads in their lives, with a perfectionist streak alongside youthful idealism and vitality - though also so aware of their mortality. There's a sad irony in some sections of this book, reading about how the author had already envisioned some elements of her future, talking of the children she would have, and the successful career she was already on the path to attaining. In spite of it all, I think if you read The Opposite of Loneliness you'll find some comfort in its pages, and turn to look at the world with gratitude for the opportunities that will arise if you go to seek them. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Sometimes I'll pick up a book and know I've found it at just the right time in my life, especially when it contains the words that I need to hear. It's a well-worn aphorism, but life really is too short for 'what if', and 'what I could have done'. The Opposite of Loneliness brought this idea home for me, through the lens of a young writer who, had things been different, I'm sure would have gone to achieve even greater milestones.

We may not know exactly what our lives will look like a few years down the line, but who says we have to have all the answers right now? We are young. And there is hope that eventually, with some faith, resilience, a strong work ethic and positive attitude - we will get to where we want to be.

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