“Rosenthal is an intriguing writer, committed to learning, and capturing, her own truth.
A collection of narrative vignettes, Missing Insects is Naomi Rosenthal’s memoir, spanning her early childhood to her own adulthood and eventual motherhood. Though intimate and uniquely personal in content, Rosenthal’s themes of family and the historic legacies haunting them reflect a universal truth, supported by her thoughtful and measured observations. Rosenthal writes from a place of understanding and appreciation of the histories that strained her relationship with her parents, which in part inspired her to strike out on her own at a young age and determine for herself what the world might offer. ... Artistically inclined, Rosenthal illustrates her pieces with images reminiscent of cave paintings—simple, yet captivating.
The author encounters an abundant number of insects while living and traveling in Africa, an abundance she recognizes as absent from her American and European homes. This dichotomy of existence versus absence proves an effective metaphor throughout her memoir as she describes what was and was not present in her family, how existing dynamics were defined by those that were absent. The presence of insects is an environmental reality, just as the historic reality of the Holocaust defined the lives of her parents and that definition, in turn, shaped her environment growing up under their often-disapproving eyes. ...
Rosenthal is an intriguing writer, committed to learning, and capturing, her own truth. Missing Insects introduces an engaging voice that calls attention to global, historical, and socioeconomic realities.” — Foreword Clarion Reviews
Rosenthal’s memoir recounts her restless travels and how she came to understand her family’s burden of historical trauma.
In two previous books, Lina’s Love: Postcards and Poems from Hugo and Searching for Hugo (both 2014), Rosenthal investigated her paternal grandparents’ courtship and marriage. Now, she tells her own story. Born in Palestine in 1947, Rosenthal and her older brother grew up in harsh surroundings: desert heat, poor food and housing, mean kids, and critical parents. In 1957, the family moved to the United States, where Rosenthal excelled in school but had few friends. She won a full college scholarship to SUNY Stony Brook, but her parents saw it as selfishness. When she chose a different summer job over working at the family’s Dairy Queen franchise, “my mother said I was no longer her daughter.” After graduating, Rosenthal traveled to Berkeley, Europe, Africa, and India, finally returning to Berkeley; she fell in love with dance, was healed by yoga, had a baby, and pursued further education. Though often financially stressed, she inched her way upward, a progress captured in one chapter title: “From Welfare Mom to Molecular Biologist.” Rosenthal tells her story well, with many colorful descriptions of culture, people, foods, and scenery. Illuminating anecdotes and deft character sketches bring her subjects alive. In Amsterdam, she met Mitsutaka Ishi, an “impenetrable” Japanese dancer and teacher who “would say things like, ‘When you lift your arm, you must give birth to a universe under your armpit.’ ” The book offers interest as a historical travel narrative as well as autobiography. For example, South Africa under apartheid: “…we realized that these people were not cruel, or stupid….they were insane.” Hitchhiking, they always got a ride and were often invited in: “We would be served a fine dinner by a barefoot houseboy in rags, while our hosts discussed the inferiority of the African people.” Though still pained by childhood episodes, Rosenthal fairly weighs her parents’ harsh treatment against their fears and weaknesses, and her final assessment of her life—quiet contentment—seems well-earned.
An ultimately hopeful journey through hardship. — Kirkus Reviews
(4.5 / 5 stars)
Missing Insects is a memoir from Naomi Rosenthal. She had a complicated upbringing in several countries, and later in life, issues with her childhood. So, in a sequence of vignettes, we get both the detail of her memories and the flow of her life. Her childhood homes ranged from Israel and Germany to multiple parts of America, and as she moved away from her parents, she ended up traveling throughout the world, with an extended multi-country tour of Africa. Along her travels, she came to terms with her childhood and her parents’ history, which had created many of those issues.
Rosenthal tells her story with humor and honesty. From her memories of sucking her thumb (funny) to being caught by her son having lied to him (honest), Missing Insects is an intriguing look at a life. The book title comes from the concept of not knowing when something is missing until you’re confronted by it. In her case, it was the multitude of insects she experienced in Africa, which she hadn’t ever encountered in previous environments. This same concept applies to her childhood. It is only through the experiences of her life that she realized the things she never had growing up. It is by going into her family history that she gained insight into the reasons why her parents were the way they were.
Memoirs usually fall into one of two camps: self-absorbed tales of little interest to anyone unrelated to the author, or autobiographies by the famous written for their fans. Missing Insects is in a third camp—a highly personal life story of interest to a wider audience.
— San Francisco Book Review