This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein

This was the book I wanted Places I Stopped on the Way Home to be: a wry, bittersweet look at the unpredictability of life as an idealistic young woman in the world’s major cities. Edelstein’s memoir also fits into several of my favorite subgenres: it’s a family memoir, a medical memoir and a bereavement memoir all at once. The story opens in Brooklyn in February 2014 as Edelstein, age 32, is trying to build an adult life back in America after 14 years in London and Berlin. Two years earlier her father had told her via Skype from Baltimore that he had lung cancer, and she returned to the States to be closer to help. But when the moment came, she was still unprepared: “if someone had said to me: What would you like to be doing when your father dies? I would not have said, I would like to be looking for love on OKCupid. But I did not have the luxury to make that decision. Who does?”

Her father never smoked yet died of lung cancer; his mother had colon cancer and died at 42. Both had Lynch syndrome, a genetic disease that predisposes people to various cancers. Six months after her father’s death, Edelstein took a genetic test, as he had wanted her to, and learned that she was positive for the Lynch syndrome mutation. The book’s structure (“Between” – “Before” – “After”) plunges readers right into the middle of the family mess, then pulls back to survey her earlier life, everything from childhood holidays in her mother’s native Scotland to being a secretary to a London literary agent who hated her, before returning to the turning point of that diagnosis. How is she going to live with this knowledge hanging over her? Doctors want her to have a prophylactic hysterectomy, but how can she rule out children when she doesn’t yet have a partner in her life?

So many aspects of this book resonated for me, especially moving between countries and having a genetic disease in the family. Beyond those major themes, there were tiny moments that felt uncannily familiar to me, like when she’s helping her mother prepare for an online auction of the contents of the family home in Maryland, or comparing the average cleanliness and comfort of rental properties in England and the States. There are so many little memorable scenes in this memoir: having an allergic reaction to shellfish two days after her arrival in the States, getting locked out of her sublet and having to call an Uzbek/Israeli locksmith at 3 a.m., and subsisting on oatmeal three times a day in London versus going on all-expenses-paid trips to Estonia and Mauritius for a conference travel magazine.

This is a clear-eyed look at life in all its irony (such as the fact that she’s claustrophobic and dreads getting MRI tests when it was her own father, a nuclear physicist, who built the world’s first full-body MRI scanner at Aberdeen) and disappointment. I’m prizing this as a prime example of life writing that’s not comprehensive or strictly chronological yet gives a clear sense of the self in the context of a family and in the face of an uncertain future.

My rating:



The Family Gene by Joselin Linder

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Mrs Gaskell & Me by Nell Stevens


Favorite lines:

“when I was in London, … I wondered if the problem of having my whole life ahead of me, free and clear and open for anything, was that having an unlimited number of options made the chance of choosing the wrong thing so high.”

“I was not yet old enough to realize that I’d never really know, that there would never be a time when I could think: I am here. This is me, without becoming uncertain again a moment later.”

“When I lived in England I drank a lot of tea, many cups a day, even though I didn’t like it. I learned quite fast after I arrived in London that drinking tea was an important way to connect with people: when I went over to their homes, or if we worked together in an office. Being offered a cup of tea meant that you were being offered an entry to something, and accepting it was important.”


This Really Isn’t About You was published by Picador on August 23rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.


21 responses

  1. I already had my eye on this one but was a little wary of the Twitter hype surrounding it. Thanks for settling my doubts, Rebecca.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I managed to miss the hype. It only caught my eye through its appearance in a Guardian newsletter, but as soon as I saw what it was about I rushed to request a copy. It has been sitting around on my shelves for months, but I finally followed through with a review! Trying to clear the decks before year’s end. I won’t quite manage it, but I’ll be nearly there, with just a few 2018 books awaiting me when I get back from America.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This feels like a worthwhile read, but one I don’t think I feel up to in these troubling times. I didn’t know, by the way, that I have to learn to like tea to gain acceptance. This knowledge has come 70 years too late for me, so I think I’ll continue to pass!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shocking! I didn’t start drinking tea until I was perhaps 22. I didn’t pick up the habit during my first year abroad in England, but by the time I moved back here permanently I was a tea drinker. And then I didn’t take to coffee until I was about 31. A hot drink habit of some sort does prove useful in social situations.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds great, and is already on my goodreads tbr list. Lynch syndrome is horrifying – I hadn’t heard of it before. Sounds like there’s a lot more substance to this one than Places I Stopped…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did find it a lot more substantial, yes. Though Edelstein does talk about boyfriends, they don’t have as prominent a place as in Fee’s book.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What amazing coincidences.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  5. This sounds crazy, and it’s not even my area of interest… sounds like a good antidote to a pretty bad memoir I’m currently reading 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Uhh… sounds great, that is!


    2. Yeah, I think you might like it!


  6. Right, adding this to my ever expanding list of books to read, thank you for the detailed review.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I really like books like this, about adults trying to figure their lives out. I definitely relate! And I love the quotes you shared. I’d not heard of this book, but I’m going to be adding it to my to-read list 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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  12. […] This Really Isn’t about You by Jean Hannah Edelstein (nonchronological) […]


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