The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Rhubarb soda + Mary Robison

Rachael Conlin Levy

The rhubarb compote vanished. I ate it with whipped cream after dinner, then polished off the rest with yogurt for breakfast, and now was scrapping the bottom of the pan for syrup, so sweet and tangy it tasted like a SweeTarts sunset. I couldn’t bear to pour it out, so I cut it with soda water and sipped it while beginning Mary Robison’s novel “Why Did I Ever.” The soda and the start were both good, so I thought I’d share.

The syrup was what remained of a loose rendition of Chez Panisse Fruit’s baked rhubarb. I used one pound of rhubarb, a half-cup of sugar and the juice of one orange, which made for a soupy compote with extra syrup that I washed down with Robison’s words.

I’ve just discovered Robison, a novelist and short-story writer known for her minimalist, stripped-down prose style. In the 1990s she was hit with writer’s block and became so desperate that she started driving around and, whenever anything came into her head, she’d scribble it down in a notebook. Months later she read over the notebooks and realized they had a steady voice, that there were characters and themes. She transferred the ideas to notecards, then assembled them into “Why I Ever,”  a story in 536 very short chapters about a woman named Money Breton, divorced three times, who’s addicted to Ritalin and trying to support herself as a screenwriter. Here are three of those chapters:

“It’ll never change,” Hollis says, beside me in the car. “No matter how long we sit here, it’ll still be a stop sign.”

Hollis is a Driver’s Ed instructor. I say, “So this is what it must be like to study under you.”


Hollis is not my ex-anything and not my boyfriend. He’s my friend. Maybe not the best friend I have in the world. He is, however, the only.


I get lost driving back and do the same exits and merges for hours and hours. I wonder if an aerial view of me might be fun to watch.

And now I’ve made an error and there are eighteen-wheelers stopped ahead of me, eighteen-wheelers behind. And not for a great long while will I be released from the lineup for this weigh station.

Mary Robison interview in BOMB magazine, Fall 2001.

“… None of the material was organized at all except around my urgent need to distract myself,” Robison told BOMB. “So I gave the sections different headings and typed them onto index cards, punched and popped the cards into a binder. And looking through, I thought, This is the only writing you’re doing. You ought to try to make it interesting for others to read. That meant, to me, a reappraisal, and taking a more fictive approach to the narrative, and then, pretty literally, assembling it. Still, I never did give it a hat or shoes, and if you read the pages in reverse order, they work about the same.”

Baked Rhubarb Compote aka Rhubarb’s SweeTarts Soda Syrup

Cut stalks of rhubarb into vertical strips about 1/3-inch thick. Cut these strips into chunks about 2-inches long. Place them in a covered baking dish and add sugar and orange juice. Bake at 350-degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 minutes. Uncover and bake another 10 minutes or until the stalks are soft, yet intact and not mushy threads. Eat for dessert. Eat for breakfast. Make soda with the syrup.

5 responses to “Rhubarb soda + Mary Robison”

  1. I don’t know if you know how crazy I am for rhubarb, but yes, it is true. I haven’t had any in a few days and I’m experiencing withdrawals. I haven’t tried making soda. I will. This look into Mary Robison’s process is so interesting. Thank you. I’m so glad I found you and your blog and your interest in the written word. By the way, love this photo.

  2. Kyna says:

    Yummy picture.

  3. Andrea says:

    Yum…can’t wait to try that recipe, just in time for rhubard season. Thanks for introducing Mary Robinson, too, I’ll definitely check out her work…a novel with three-sentence chapters should fit perfectly into my spare time these days.

  4. anno says:

    I don’t even like rhubarb, and yet this post still evoked all the best of a summer day. Beautiful picture, and I am fascinated by Robison’s process. When I am breathing again — post-play/yearbook/graduation — am looking forward to reading more of her work. Thanks again for another post that makes me believe that writers have important work to do.

  5. […] anticipating the season’s first rhubarb soda and the return of the school week. What are you eagerly awaiting? Published Tuesday April 17, […]

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