Manette Ansay is best known as the author of the Oprah Book Club selection Vinegar Hill and the National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist Midnight Champagne. But writing was her second, reluctant career choice. At age 20, Ansay found herself suffering from a debilitating and undiagnosable muscle disorder, an illness that forced her to give up her lifelong ambition of becoming a concert pianist. She also began to question her Catholic faith. How she persevered through years of pain to ultimately build a career as a renowned novelist forms the backbone of her powerful new memoir, Limbo.
Raised in rural Wisconsin, Ansay known as Ann to her family turned to books and music for escape. With great sacrifices by her parents, she took piano lessons and practiced for hours every day, eventually winning acceptance to the Peabody Conservatory in Maryland. Pain was a constant for all the students. Twice a day, I emptied the ice tray into the kitchen sink, Ansay writes, then filled the basin and submerged my arms. But the Midwestern stoicism of her German-Catholic upbringing carried her forward: Practice and prayer, music and God, the discipline of the Conservatory and the discipline of the Church . . . I needed the first to maintain the second. But over time, Ansay's debility worsened. Despite topical analgesics, acupuncture, cortisone shots and wrist braces, she could no longer perform. She had to face the impossible question: Who would I be without the piano? As in her novels, Ansay paints her characters in detailed colors. She weaves the narrative of her father's stay at a tuberculosis sanitarium into her own story; his return to health fuels her own eventual emergence as a writer.
In many ways, Ansay is still in limbo. She spends her days in a wheelchair, has yet to receive a clear diagnosis for her illness and no longer identifies herself as a Catholic. But Limbo is not a tale of woe. Ansay now brings to her writing the brilliance that she once brought to the piano. Carnegie Hall may have lost a great musician, but millions of readers have gained a gifted storyteller and friend.
Mary Carol Moran teaches the Novel Writers' Workshop at Auburn University.