Review of DO-OVER! by Robin Hemley, Little, Brown & Company, 2009.
By Jessica DeVoe Riley
“You’re going to know a lot about your life when you finish this.”
Imagine being given the chance to do over something from your past. How about two things? How about ten? Think you would learn something new about your life? Robin Hemley did.
At age forty-eight, Robin Hemley finds himself divorced and remarried, the father of three girls with one more child on the way, and the owner of one too many unresolved childhood memories. He decides that if he intends to be the kind of father he wants to be, then he must come to terms with those cringe-worthy memories. His approach is to shout “Do over!” with the bravado of his inner child. The end result is his book DO-OVER!, "In Which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom, and other embarrassments.” Hemley brings readers on an amusing tour of his life: reflections on the awkwardness of youth and his journey to confront those ghosts of his past.
While the book admittedly sounds a bit like the plot to Billy Madison, it is much more than repeating a few grades in school – Hemley returns to summer camp, joins a fraternity, and spends the night in his childhood home. Each chapter is dedicated to a single do-over, in which Hemley tells the memory of why this is a moment in time he would like to repeat, how the do-over experience goes, and what he learns from it to apply to his present life as a father and husband. It’s hard not to cheer along for Hemley. He writes with such endearing humor as he addresses the survival strategy that everyone knows but has trouble applying to their own lives: learn and move on from your mistakes. “Our whole lives we struggle with our personal sense of failure,” he writes. “To the outside world, our failures are strangers, but to us, they’re our closest intimates, closer than friends, children, spouses, parents; nourished from an early age, they may become so strong that they overcome us.”
In addition to a balanced blend of comedy, sarcasm, and sensitivity while delivering painful memories of flubbing lines, lacking confidence, or getting homesick while studying abroad, Hemley draws the reader in with descriptions of the supporters he encounters along the way. Hemley repeatedly references how most people he tells about his project are not only excited for him but often offer the moments they would like to do over. Even the sixth grade art teacher who introduced herself to Hemley saying, “I’m going to have a hard time taking this seriously,” winds up confiding in Hemley about her own past experiences with teachers, a conversation that leaves him “feeling as though I’ve made her a convert, though I’m not exactly sure to what.”
From his dream high school prom date talking of the current batch of high-schoolers (“Sometimes I forget that I’m not as young as they are because I feel their age still”) to toasting with friends in Japan (“To who we are!"), Hemley makes his strongest connection to readers by bringing everyone in on the agreement that the inner child still exists, and that everyone benefits by letting him out once in a while. With that imagination and exuberance for life, though, comes the childhood feelings of confusion or lack of confidence or fear. As adults we’ve (hopefully) become more capable of handling those feelings: “Sometimes I’m an observer. Sometimes I’m a participant. Sometimes I’m an oddity. But most of the time, I seem to fit in somehow, and these are the moments I relish, even when I’m playing the fool or basking in the imaginative worlds of childhood.”
Robin Hemley is the winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on DO-OVER!. He has published seven books, and his stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and many literary magazines and anthologies, including Hayden's Ferry Review (his story, "Mercy" appeared in issue #34). Robin received his MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop; he currently directs the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa and lives in Iowa City, IA.