In her thoughtful and moving memoir Smile, Ruhl reminds us that a smile is not just a smile but a vital form of communication, of bonding, of what makes us human ... Ruhl may have had access to more resources than most, but her struggles nonetheless feel universal. And that is the thread that binds this beautifully written story ... Ruhl may have lost the face she once knew but she reminds us that 'in truth, we don’t have to win to be grateful. We can always thank the people we love, the people who help us, even when we don’t win an award. We often just forget to.' That’s the kind of simple poignancy that elevates this book.
... to run into an illness memoir that one would call 'delightful' would seem to be a rare occurrence. Yet I just read... Smile ... Ruhl's explanation of celiac is a must-read if you don't understand how serious a problem this is, which most of us don't, associating it with some sort of trendy gluten-free diet ... Ruhl takes you with her on a journey that is as much spiritual as it is medical. All the smiles she was missing will likely land on your face. There is a wonderful list of sources and resources at the end, including theater, philosophy, music, medicine and more—reminding us how much richness is seamlessly integrated into the narrative without pretension ... an admirably light touch in describing adversity.
Some sections of this slim book may feel padded (unless you’re riveted by the subject of gluten), and Ruhl’s detective work into her family medical history is speculative enough to feel tangential ... But there’s something pleasing about the memoir’s deliberately slow pace, mimicking Ruhl’s recovery over 10 years.
... sharply observed ... Even readers who have never suffered a serious physical injury will recognize that disconnect: the sense that the body and spirit are not always in sync. Ruhl captures this disconnect with honesty, grace and frequent flashes of wry humor, without always needing to wrap everything up into a tidy insight. Smile is at once an illness narrative, a meditation on smiling as cultural practice and symbol, and a compelling, behind-the-scenes look at the life of a playwright and mother.
If you love Sarah Ruhl’s plays as I do...you will be happy to spend time listening to the playwright speaking in her own voice ... As in many of her plays, Ruhl muses about so many disparate things that Smile reads less like a medical memoir and more like a series of far-flung jazz riffs on a theme to which she returns every few chapters ... If you are looking for a medical memoir about learning to live with Bell’s Palsy, you will be frustrated with this book and find it rambling and all over the place. If, however, you love Ruhl’s voice and sensibility, you will enjoy spending time with her, no matter where she decides to take you ... This is the voice of a wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, patient, and author who wrote a memoir on her own terms. I can’t wait for Ruhl’s next play.
Smile records Ruhl's coming to terms with her new face and the conundrums it presents, it is not limited to 'the story of a face,' as the memoir's subtitle suggests. For much of the book, Ruhl's condition recedes into the background ... Smile proceeds linearly, and about two-thirds of it takes place in the two years after Ruhl's twins were born and thus after her Bell's palsy diagnosis, with interstitials that scatter away to abstractly explore smiling, symmetry and asymmetry, beauty standards, and loss ... Ruhl's writing on parenting and theater is engaging and insightful ... Later, Ruhl gives credence to the practice of physiognomy without noting that this pseudoscience was used to provide 'evidence' for racism. These digressions — some of them belabored with explanation that does not trust the reader's intelligence (do we really need a primer on what gluten is in 2021?) — began to feel as though they served to avoid dwelling on Ruhl's personal experience of persistent facial paralysis and treatment thereof ... These insights allow for the reader to empathize, a crucial function of any illness narrative. But for much of Smile, she resists ascribing meaning to her decision-making around her Bell's palsy ... It is not until the last 50 or so pages of the book that she begins to grapple with why she evaded her own face ... Her mistake is that memoir does not require a single epiphany, but would do well to offer many moments of retrospective meaning-making.
...most importantly, and so honestly described, she probes her relationship to her own self: her self-identity, her physicality, and her frustrations and fears living with Bell’s palsy and navigating the world with a face she cannot control. Smile moves through time fluidly, avoiding a simply chronological telling in favor of a more organic searching of emotion, response, ideas, and transformations both physical and emotional ... Throughout, Ruhl chases the possibility of healing, though over time what healing actually means for her comes into a sharper and more refined focus ... fascinating ... In the end, the book transcends this diagnosis and becomes a rumination on the wisdom found in literature and in friendship, the force of religious belief and spiritual seeking, the magic of long-lasting romantic love, the fragile, powerful joy of motherhood, and the importance of being kind and loving to oneself.
...intimate ... With Smile, Ruhl attaches new wings to some of these planes and we see them test different literary altitudes, come in and out of focus, and make looping detours into the philosophical, dramaturgical, and pop cultural. For all their weightlessness, they convey a tonnage of emotion. Taking such an approach comes with a few risks, most notably that of experiencing deja vu. Some of the material gets recycled, almost verbatim, from that earlier work ... The familiarity lends these moments a foggy dullness as we watch laments eddy around the same ontological current. Yet, while reading, I was unable to make up my mind whether this repetition was a deliberate aesthetic strategy ... Smile gives the lie to such a dichotomy, binds up these binaries. It achieves a delicate balance, if not quite symmetry, in all these things and reminds us that between lightness and heaviness, we don’t always have to choose.
Though Ruhl spent years avoiding her face in daily life, on the page she stares at it without flinching ... Her memoir is wildly funny about the day-to-day realities of mothering ... In all, this is a beautiful book that expresses the big feelings of life and the daily practices that allow for incremental progress.
... stunning ... In a series of insightful and witty essays, she provides an unvarnished look at coming to terms with a face that’s paralyzed on one side; the postpartum depression she dealt with after a complicated pregnancy; and a celiac disease diagnosis that made her give up her beloved bagels ... As she recounts learning to find joy in small things—such as regaining the ability to blink—Ruhl proves that even life at its most mundane can be fascinating. This incredibly inspiring story offers hope where it’s least expected.
... a wise, intimate, and moving memoir ... Ruhl engagingly reports on her interactions with a host of therapists and medical practitioners—some brusque and dismissive, some caring and helpful; she even sought advice from a Tibetan lama ... A captivating, insightful memoir.