When people solidly in middle age write memoirs most often they have had unusual lives.  Or — better yet — they’re about to flee from ordinariness into a major life change, or they’re writing about the aftershocks from a sudden jolt.  Melanie Gideon, in her memoir The Slippery Year, fits none of these categories. Half Armenian, half-Indian, she is the middle-class daughter of a pediatrician and a psychiatric nurse raised comfortably with three sisters in Rhode Island.  Now married with a 9-year-old child and settled in the Oakland Hills, she’s a mother in the carpool lane, a wife who resents her husband’s snoring, a reluctant member of a women-only dinner group who buckles under the pressure of what gourmet dish to bring.  And she’s floating in the middle of an existential “Is this all there is and how do you know?” fog that she can’t wipe out of her eyes.

Yet when she squints at the bleary outlines intense humor, sardonic wit, and an almost sentimental angst seeps out.  “I did not have cancer.  My parents had not abused me.  I was in a good marriage to a kind man,” writes Gideon in her introduction as an apologia for the sense of quotidian disappointment and dysphoric angst she constantly feels.  The “slip” that serves as a touchstone throughout the book is a sense of meaningfulness sliding out from under her guise as a modern-day mother entrapped with privilege and accomplishment.

This would be sobering, a kind of pre-“Richard Cory” glance to see what’s lurking inside the minivan if Gideon wasn’t so damn funny.  Blessed and cursed by the fact that she’s deeply aware, she first chronicled the burr of her husband’s impulse purchase of a camper in the New York Times’ Modern Love column and in this book she expands.  Quite literally.  She blows up details of her Bay area life to comic effect, and after letting the air out settles into an almost poetic realization of what her life really is.

In a hilarious passage she describes the tortoise-like pace of shoppers having a “lifestyle experience” at her local Trader Joe’s and how this irks her.  While walking fast in San Francisco she is stopped by someone proselytizing the “Slowmandments” as part of a goal to make San Francisco “an official Slow City.”  Gideon’s response is that the thought of San Francisco being any slower than it already was – “was terrifying.” She replies that he has clearly mistaken her for a native Californian but then feels guilty she’s rebuffed his message. At Chez Panisse in Berkeley she looks for secret messages in her menu since she is so bereft she’s not having an orgasmic food experience like everyone else.

“At forty-four, I feel the current of that river pulling at me,” Gideon writes, “I am one of six and a half billion people currently taking their turn at being alive on this planet” and then she riffs on soccer-parent politics. It’s too flip to call Gideon a postmodern Erma Bombeck – the world is too changed from that era, the jar between generations too rife. But her humor, sense of modern-day ennui, and intense wit settle into a Rothko-like layering where she stares into the lack and creates an atmosphere dark with depth and poignancy. Gideon wades around in the muck of her well-appointed life but messy psyche to create a likeable character grappling sharply with issues of purpose, how to both nurture and let go of her son, know if she’s in love enough, deal with their beloved dog’s remains, weigh risk over safety and feel guilty because she takes this measure.

One critique is that I wish Gideon could show more courage.  Also the author of two children’s books she’s obviously a talented writer who makes no mention of her ambitions.  She is willing to discount her strengths in a way that translates as honest and humble, but also unfairly self-deprecating. Striking is her willingness to indict her own misgivings and chronic worry which makes the moments of happiness, when they float by, the more startling. Her son, Ben, emerges as the book’s mini-Zen philosopher.  In response to hearing his mother explain, “The sky is falling,” he reframes this as “the sky is calling.”  Gideon’s devotion toward her son, and her sense of unbearable grief that he will one day grow up and leave (foreshadowed in a hysterical recollection of his week away at soccer camp) catch up all of the book’s themes in a Gordian Knot of incurable feeling.

“My friends and I search for our lost selves everywhere” she writes, “Where is that plucky girl, that lustful teenager, that optimistic young woman, that tenderhearted young mother?”  “Occasionally, if we are lucky,” she writes, “we catch a glimpse of the woman we are becoming… the one who has been aging gracefully inside of us. She is more than her body.  She is more than her face.” By making the book’s subtitle “a meditation on happily ever after” she outlays its thematic reach – to set thinking against fairy tale, set reality against wistfulness, and the flip of finding her younger self’s aspirations set against the woman she now is.