the museum of americana

a literary review

Courtney Kersten’s Daughter in Retrograde — Review by Thaïs Miller

Courtney Kersten’s debut memoir provides a window into Midwestern culture and its dissidents. She leads readers into smoke-filled bars blasting Neil Diamond while beer glasses sweat and slot machines rainbow the room. Then in the morning, she escorts them, hungover, down the aisles of grocery stores, where everyone knows each other’s business. And as they pass blondes with plastered smiles evaluating boxes of cereal, she whispers about the secrets concealed under their pristine surfaces.

As the title suggests, Daughter in Retrograde is a spiritual bildungsroman. Kersten navigates premonitions and communes with the beyond. As she explains in her book, retrograde is a period of self-reflection, when assumptions and fears come to the surface for one to reconsider. After living abroad in Hungary, she returns to her home in Wisconsin in her twenties to care for her terminally-ill mother, Vicky Ness, who is 57 years old. Kersten is surrounded by her younger brother, Donny, her stepfather, Bruce, and her biological father, Tom. Everyone feels suspended in time. She cares for her family and wades through this process of mourning, “pulled down by an overwhelming apprehension about how to chart the unknown, about how to live without her axis point – her mother.” Her astrological chart serves as a roadmap on this challenging journey of self-discovery.
During this time of personal awakening, she also performs an artistic metamorphosis, transforming the mundane into the magical, capturing humor amidst grief. The memoir parodies the tone of voice found in the newspaper clippings of horoscopes to which Kersten clings. She writes with self-awareness, honesty, and humility. Readers will laugh and cry as she writes and rewrites her mother’s obituary.

Daughter in Retrograde is incredibly witty and poignant. Spiritual divinations empower Kersten to reexamine American culture, particularly our discomfort around death. A relative encourages her not to think of her mother as gone, for example, but rather to pretend that Vicky is on a trip to Hawaii. Kersten masterfully articulates emotions and experiences readers will find sympathetic. She is one of the few writers who can truly capture the feeling of being haunted by grief, not as a broad, abstract concept, but as a ghost who climbs hedges and sneaks into her classroom while she tries to teach acting and set-design to a pack of nine-year-olds.

Courtney Kersten’s memoir is emotionally haunting and darkly funny. Daughter in Retrograde captures a woman grappling with her relationship to the divine near her mother’s deathbed. On this emotionally-compelling odyssey, she emboldens readers to embrace mystery and learn to let go.