Leslie Lawrence’s collection of essays, “The Death of Fred Astaire: And Other Essays from a Life Outside the Lines,” offers a marvelously rendered and insightful journey about living and loving as honestly as possible.

In the opening essay from which the book takes its title, Lawrence writes that as a child she “lived in dread of so much as a raised eyebrow.” Born in the 1950s, coming of age in the 1970s, and coming out as a lesbian in the 1980s, Lawrence offers readers a deep probing of what it means to be brave enough to “dance outside the lines,” lines that constrain us all, independent of sexual orientation. There is much here for anyone interested in discovering where those lines are and the power that accrues in crossing them.

The book is more a memoir of linked essays than truly separate pieces, though several were separately published elsewhere in one form or another. The book has a narrative arc that gathers critical weight as several central themes thread together, including sexual orientation, motherhood, partnering and a desire to become a writer.

The book’s opening line stresses motherhood, but intimates other themes to come: “When I was a child I accepted without question that I would one day be a mother.” Despite Lawrence having been in relationships with men, passionately at times, “I had discovered that when I was with women I felt more fully myself and more deeply loved.”

Pieces of Lawrence’s story are firmly set when she meets Sandy, her future partner, and is joyous learning that she, too, is interested in having children. Her parents are far less joyous about the nexus of Lawrence’s new nuclear family.

“I want you to know what a great disappointment it is,” her father tells her. This was the summer that Fred Astaire died, marking in Lawrence’s mind the passing of her parents’ era and the rigid notions for where lines lie.

An essence of the book is felt early on in an essay about the historical expectations that women “fit” in, coupled with her deep desire to be a writer. She writes, “I can see now how my journey to become a writer is bound up with my search for a version of womanhood I could live with.” Fitting in isn’t a part of the calculus. Lawrence wants to be free to be her true self.

There are priceless treats throughout the 18 collected essays here.

In “King for a Day,” a colleague at the small New England’s women’s college where Lawrence is an adjunct professor encourages her to sign up for the faculty development “Cross-dressing Workshop.” Lawrence conjures a persona to take on, a mustachioed Jeff Sykes: “Mighty Man: crude, virile, self-assured, smug, and successful in all the ways I wasn’t. Handsome, of course, bisexual; a rising sculptor with a tenured position.”

The challenges to transform herself into Jeff Sykes are fascinating, and immensely revealing, at least in this male reader’s mind. They’re like gleanings in a funhouse mirror of how women perceive the differences between the sexes. Men, Lawrence writes, don’t stop to check things out on entering a room, “but charge in like you own the space.” Also, she advises, cross-dressing women should never end a sentence “in a questioning tone.” And they should look slightly to the side of the person they’re addressing. “If things get tense, just imagine your own eyes set way back in the rear of your skull so as to create a feeling of distance – and safety.” Further, Lawrence observes, men flop into chairs, they don’t perch like women.

At a dinner, when she is still in “costume” but removes her mustache, she doesn’t know what to do with it. A friend tells her to just toss it “under the table… That’s what a man would do.”

Another essay describes the “new normal” of women’s lives at the millennium, where Lawrence writes about she and her partner raising their son, Sam. “How I agonized over what Sam’s unusual family would cost him… I dreaded the inevitable questions: Where’s my Daddy?” Not to worry. “We were midway through a new book enjoying the splendid watercolors illustrating a baby horse and his mother (referred to as ‘foal’ and ‘mare’), grazing peacefully in a meadow. ‘But where,’ Sam suddenly asks, with all the intensity his toddler voice can carry, ‘where’s the other mare?'”

Lawrence’s essays cover a rich spectrum. One deals with how women are trained to keep themselves “buttoned up;” another revels in a favorite uncle who stressed life was “all about attitude,” how he possessed a “genius to make people happy.” She writes about how the love of a dog opened her to the possibility that she could be happy as a mother; and about the travail and joy of traveling with a group of women friends. One essay is about substitute teaching in a low-income, inner-city school, about her students’ successes and her own failures. Teaching, and learning, are themes that pervade the book.

There is a long section toward the end entitled “On the Mowing” that delves more deeply into her journey as a writer and her relationship with Sandy, covering a period of years where they summer in a cabin in New Hampshire. The “mowing” refers to the open field that sits below the cabin, the field that won her heart the first time she went to inspect the place.

Over the years as they return summer after summer, the mowing reveals how everything, including the landscape, is constantly changing. It becomes a place of peace and love and joy, and also loss. While she and Sandy are there, Sandy’s terminal cancer enters the frame of their lives.

The journey that Leslie Lawrence recounts in “The Death of Fred Astaire” is funny, poignant and sad. In this time of bitter culture wars over sexual orientation and gender identity, “The Death of Fred Astaire” is a hopeful story. And ever so human.

Frank O Smith’s novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. Smith can be reached via his website:


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