Judith Thurman, a staff writer at The New Yorker for more than two decades, has gathered a selection of her essays and profiles in A Left-Handed Woman. They consider our culture in all its guises: literature, history, politics, gender, fashion, and art, though their paramount subject is the human condition.
Thurman does not so much ponder a fact as assess it in the round, like a work of sculpture. Almost unfailingly, it talks back ... Little escapes Thurman ... Part of what you appreciate in an essayist is her having accepted each of those supposedly fun assignments so that you won’t have to ... Thurman’s breadth of interests is great—she has written on pearls, on architecture, on hair products, on tofu—but with the new anthology she has also largely left the inanimate world behind. She writes less often of men ... Thurman too is equal parts cerebral and seductive, though foregoes the occasional splashes of vinegar. She pulverizes clods of research. She is wildly, often thrillingly allusive. The worldliness may be her trademark.
Her subjects are brought to life as complex, even cryptic characters. 'The mystery of how we become who we are' is her enduring preoccupation — an enigma whose sanctity she succeeds in preserving even as she unravels it ... She is a polyglot and a chameleon, precise, erudite, forthright. Her attention to detail is formidable ... Many of her essays conclude on an unexpected grace note, a shimmering that casts both new light and a subtle shade of doubt on what came before.
Ms. Thurman’s savvy profiles of couturiers help us understand that high fashion is about more than what the rich and famous wear to galas. Her interest runs deeper than just the clothes; she likes to delve under the skin of particularly innovative designers to try to understand how they have come to change and even define an era’s look. Particularly affecting are her tributes to Isabel Toledo, the Cuban-born designer of the lemongrass-yellow dress and coat Michelle Obama wore to her husband’s first inauguration in 2009, and Ann Lowe, the underappreciated black couturier who was slighted as 'a colored woman dressmaker' in media coverage of the lavish gown she designed for Jacqueline Bouvier’s 1953 wedding to John F. Kennedy. In all of these pieces Ms. Thurman makes it clear that, if 'read' properly, fashion, like literature and fine art, offers rich insights into our culture ... Organized thematically rather than chronologically, these essays are a lot to digest one after the other; for maximum enjoyment, I recommend cherry-picking. Fortunately, you can rest assured that there’s a point to whatever Ms. Thurman weighs in on ... Although prone to some overloaded sentences that could be easily divisible by two, Ms. Thurman is a sharp critic whose observations cut through to the essence of her subjects ... Quoting these essays is irresistible ... Ms. Thurman loves to share her passions and reshape the reader’s focus ... artful essays.