A Memoir of Identity and Other Illusions

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Pub Date 01 Mar 2024 | Archive Date 29 Feb 2024

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Penny Guisinger was not always attracted to women. In Shift she recounts formative relationships with women and men, including the marriage that produced her two children and ultimately ended in part due to her affair with her now-wife. Beginning her story as straight and ending as queer, she struggles to make sense of how her identity changed so profoundly while leaving her feeling like the same person she’s always been. While covering pivotal periods of her life, including previous relationships and raising her children across the chasm of divorce, Guisinger reaches for quantum physics, music theory, planetary harmonics, palmistry, and more to interrogate her experiences. This personal story plays out against the backdrop of the national debate on same-sex marriage, in rural, easternmost Maine, where Guisinger watched her neighbors vote against the validity of her family.

Shift examines sexual and romantic fluidity while wrestling with the ways past and present mingle rather than staying in linear narratives. Under scrutiny, Guisinger’s sense of her own identity becomes like a Mobius strip or Penrose triangle—an optical illusion that challenges the dimensions and possibilities of the world.

Penny Guisinger was not always attracted to women. In Shift she recounts formative relationships with women and men, including the marriage that produced her two children and ultimately ended in part...

Advance Praise

“Memoir may be the story of the self in time, but in this engaging, surprising book Penny Guisinger sidesteps the obvious and employs a host of unexpected ideas . . . to examine a lifetime’s progress toward genuine love and an authentic life. The result is a terrific contribution to queer literature and a wonderfully fresh, irresistible delight.”—Mark Doty, National Book Award–winner and author of Heaven’s Coast

“The specificity of this memoir—its depth, its nuance, its balance, and its story—grips you and doesn’t let go. I loved every word. Penny writes with such grace and honesty and love that you too won’t want this book to leave your bookshelf, let alone your hands. Shift is a stunningly powerful memoir.”—Morgan Talty, best-selling author of Night of the Living Rez

“Guisinger’s honesty had me from the git-go. Read it, fall in love as I did, learn something you may not yet know. Did I mention Penny Guisinger is also very funny? She is also very funny.”—Abigail Thomas, author of Still Life at Eighty: The Next Interesting Thing

“What I love most about this smart, edgy memoir is how it celebrates love, in all its permutations, how in it, who we love and how are more important than what we are called, than what we call ourselves. It imagines a world which accepts that to be human is to shift, where a foreshortened marriage is not a failure but a limited success, where it is possible to find safety, self, a path through our altering personal geometries to a place where we can love intelligently, with candor and without masks.”—Pam Houston, author of Deep Creek: Finding Hope in The High Country

“Each sentence in this book is a delightful jewel, and the sum of these sentences asks, ‘What is time? Am I the selves I was, who I pretended to be, and the selves that have grown into the present?’ Guisinger tracks love and days as they wink and flitter within and beyond timelines and roles, creating a breathtaking quantum nonfiction portrait.”—Sonya Huber, author of Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System

“I read Shift with my heart in my throat. It’s both the most romantic book I’ve encountered in ages and a clear-eyed dissection of romance’s consequences when falling in love means reinventing not just a life, but a self. This urgent, wry, deeply reflective book will be with me for a long time.”—Kristi Coulter, author of Nothing Good Can Come from This

Shift is the story of hard-won love, told with an honesty that includes heartbroken children, sexual euphoria, and the crooked road toward remaking a family.”—Monica Wood, author of When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine

“In Shift Penny Guisinger takes us on a lyrical journey to self. And it’s a beautiful story: a young teen groping for identity—a queer identity—grows into a self-possessed, independent woman negotiating family and friendship, career and romance, mind-work and hard physical work. By turns harrowing, hilarious, erotic, wise, and calm, honest and cagey, poetic and profound, Shift is a joy to read, and Penny Guisinger a delightful storyteller and thinker. Don’t start the book late at night, you’ll get less sleep than Penny during a first lesbian encounter: Yes, those are birds singing, and we’ve spent the night in bliss.”—Bill Roorbach, author of Summers with Juliet, Lucky Turtle, and Beep

“Using the poetics of mathematics as her touchstone, Penny Guisinger has woven a captivating tale of love and desire, harmony and dissonance, fracture and repair. This book is a window into a critical point in queer history, when gay marriage was legal in some states but not yet all, a story told by a woman who did not discover she was gay until several years after she was a mother married to a man. Read this book. It’s like nothing you’ve ever read before.”—Jennifer Lunden, author of American Breakdown

“As with a walk along the lengths and curves of a Möbius strip, Penny Guisinger didn’t complete the path of this story the same person she was at the start. Nor will you.”—Suzanne Strempk Shea, author of Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith

“Memoir may be the story of the self in time, but in this engaging, surprising book Penny Guisinger sidesteps the obvious and employs a host of unexpected ideas . . . to examine a lifetime’s progress...

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Featured Reviews

Thanks to author, publisher and Netgalley for the chance to read this book. While I got the book for free it had no bearing on the rating I gave it.

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I enjoyed this exploration of sexual fluidity. While younger people seem to be embracing fluidity, it is still a topic that is barely understood by many middle-aged and older people.

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"Shift" by Penny Guisinger is a compelling memoir that delves into the complexities of identity, relationships, and personal growth. Guisinger candidly recounts her experiences with women and men, navigating the challenges of a failed marriage and an affair that ultimately led her to her current wife. What sets this memoir apart is Guisinger's straightforward yet thoughtful integration of various disciplines, such as quantum physics and music theory, into her personal narrative. This approach adds depth to the storytelling, prompting readers to consider the nuanced aspects of identity and the interconnectedness of past and present.

The backdrop of rural, easternmost Maine and the national debate on same-sex marriage adds a layer of significance to Guisinger's journey. The rejection of her family's validity by neighbors serves as a poignant reflection of societal attitudes. "Shift" stands out as a sincere exploration of self-discovery and acceptance, moving beyond conventional narratives. Guisinger's storytelling is both impactful and intellectually engaging, leaving a lasting impression on readers as they contemplate the intricacies of the human experience.

A special note of thanks to the author and publisher for providing an ARC via Netgalley.

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I thought this book included a lot of interesting life stories and reflections. There were also clever comparisons, like coming out being like a map that has folds and creases from all the times it has to be taken out and used.

I would've liked it better if I felt a clearer distinction between the chapters and what the ultimate goal was for sharing certain stories when they were shared. It felt a bit stream of consciousness and could've been organized to make it more compelling.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the chance to read this book.

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I was very quickly annoyed at the author’s choice not to structure the book more clearly. But then I got sucked in to her story, and I stopped caring so much about my ideas of structure and having everything make sense.
I read the book quickly, eagerly, searching for ideas and recognition. I have never been married to a man but I have certainly been in that marriage that isn’t working and you don’t know what to do, and the kids are small.
I am glad she seems happy now.
This book isn’t for everybody. But I’m very glad I read it.

I received a free advance e-copy of the book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

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This wasn't necessarily poorly written, I just didn't follow the analogies and the random scientist/mathematician/etc. mentions. It was an interesting story and I don't typically like to rate memoirs because who am I to tell someone how to tell their own story, but it did fall a little bit short for me.

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I cannot emphasize enough how much I loved this book. This was my first exposure to Penny Guisinger’s writing, which reminds me of the way Jeannine Ouellette writes. She spends less time on telling the reader the surface events of her life (marrying a man and later falling in love with a woman) and focuses more on using metaphor and detail to evoke curiosity and feeling. What does it feel like for your life and identity to fall apart in the throes of parenting young children? How do you rally the courage to step off the edge of everything you’ve ever known? Especially potent was her story of a dying newborn mouse and its similarities to the inner conflict she experienced in taking action around her failing marriage and family. At the same time, her prose about falling in love with a woman is intoxicating. The overall structure is brilliant. I didn’t comprehend that structure while I was reading because I was too busy feeling my way through all the change. But by the end of the book, I could look back and see it, which makes me want to read the book again. Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read in exchange for an honest review.

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