book cover of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey in serif font on a plain background with a snail sitting atop the word 'wild' and peering down inquisitively

Book Review: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

A memoir of illness, hope, and snails

"The snail and I were both living in altered landscapes not of our choosing; I figured we shared a sense of loss and displacement."

My book club read The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (Algonquin Books, 2010). This book is an illness memoir, nature nonfiction, and a friendship story. Bailey has an incapacitating illness that confines her to her bed for a long time. One day, a friend brings her a pot of violets harboring an unsuspecting traveler: a snail.

The beginning of this book reminded me of When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon's cancer memoir, because of the unhurried reflection on the brief moments passing us by. It felt like a pause in the busyness and bustle; a reminder that all we have in life, we will not always have.

"As the months drifted by, it was hard to remember why the endless details of a healthy life and a good job had seemed so critical. It was odd to see my friends overwhelmed by their busy lives, when they could do all the things that I could not, without a second thought."

Then I arrived in the middle of the book, where Bailey switched almost exclusively to studying the snail. Her detailed descriptions of her snail friend reminded me of 19th century naturalists (like the character Stephen Maturin in Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin novels). Her writing was lovely and clear.

But I didn't realize how much of the book would be focused on the snail. The choice of focus makes sense—after all, from Bailey's point of view, one of her primary relationships at that time in her life was with her snail, not with other people. But because other memoirs I've read focused on relationships with people, my expectations were set incorrectly. I expected more memoir, less nature; more people, less snail. And personally, I'm more interested in the lives of people than in the lives of gastropods.

That said, I think The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating was still a worthwhile read. It was quiet and reflective, and kindled a lively discussion with my book club.

Book club discussion questions

  1. The author discusses her sense of loss and displacement on being in the white room. When have you felt displaced? Did you recover, and what helped you find your place again? What makes a place feel like home?
  2. What companionship have you shared with animals, if any? How did you develop the relationship and what did it mean to you?
  3. The author says, "we are all hostages of time." In what ways do you feel time keeps you hostage? How do you make the most of your time?
  4. Do you know anyone with a chronic illness that keeps them homebound or bedbound? How has their illness affected their life, and yours? The author says, "I was a reminder of all they feared: change, uncertainty, loss, and the sharp edge of mortality."
  5. When the author's snail disappears one day, she finds herself bereft. When have you felt alone or isolated? What did you hold onto, and what contributed to your feelings of isolation?
  6. Eventually, the author returns home. She says, "And each time I've started my slow way back, over many years, toward the life I once knew, I find that nothing is quite as I remember; in my absence, the world has changed." What homecomings have you experienced, especially after a long or unexpected absence? How did you feel? How did you reintegrate with your previous familiar?
  7. Could you find a snail and watch it for half an hour?
  8. What would you name a snail?
  9. What did you find most fascinating about the snail?
  10. If you were going to write a memoir, what would you write about?

tags: books nature

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