NOTE: For the sake of full disclosure, I want to mention that Natalia was my college mentor. She was my advisor for my honors thesis and is a close friend. That being said, I’ll try to review this book as objectively as possible!
More of a series of essays than a cohesive memoir, Scraping By in the Big Eighties is the story of Singer’s twenties, the vague, undefinable years between college and career. After graduating from Northwestern, she packed her bags and headed West, as much to escape her mother’s mental illness as to reject the future so many of her former classmates were embracing, one of stability, security and selling out. The book follows her from the Pacific Northwest to Mexico to Massachusetts to Paris as she discovers herself, deals with the demons of her mother’s illness, and resists the establishment, Reaganomics, and the excess of the 80’s. There’s plenty of sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll, but there’s also a lot of interesting social commentary on a decade that’s most often glorified or forgotten. I didn’t know much about the 80’s beyond what one sees on VH1 and what my parents have told me, but Singer paints a complex portrait of a decade that’s far less ideal than nostalgia would have us believe. She is decidedly anti-Reagan, and describes him and his policies in ways I’d never really heard of before (and appreciated). The interplay of politics and personal experience really works here; all of her stories are framed, somehow, by the national situation and the policies of the lawmakers in power.
She doesn’t let her own story get overshadowed by these larger themes, though; these are what really drive the story. The experiences she retells range from the hilarious to the devastating, but they all work equally well. The portions dealing with her mother are particularly poignant; it’s a delicate situation, but she handles it incredibly well and presents it in a nuanced manner.
Although I know Singer personally, I think her persona on the page is real and powerful and would be even to someone who’s never met her. I found myself relating more than I would have thought–who would have thought that two recent college graduates 20 years apart would share the same experiences, beliefs, and disillusionment with mainstream society? Singer’s voice is honest and compelling, even when dealing with the touchiest of subjects.
I really recommend this memoir, whether you grew up in the 80’s or not; it’s a unique and fascinating look at a life lived outside of the mainstream, and a beautiful coming of age story.