Memoirs are hard to get right: too much honesty and everyone will come away hating you, too littleand everyone comes away hating you and thinking you're a phony. Then too, many people who have had interesting lives aren't able to articulate them very well. Then you can read a couple of hundred pages and still never have a clue what the author is like. And those who are good at turning their personal history into charming anecdotes are rarely also good at placing their narrative into a bigger context. Every single bit of it is hard: there are just so many places to screw it up.
Boylan does not screw it up. She gives the reader enough to feel engaged on an emotional level, all the while she's making one laugh and cry and laugh and sigh and laugh. I had no problem at all believing that she's the most popular professor at her college. She's funny as hell in a quiet sort of way, not at all like a string of jokes cobbled together. And then wham, right in the feels.
What I think it is, is this: Boylan is brilliant at capturing the concrete detail, and the detail is so much more evocative and visceral than emoting would be. There's no cataloging of emotional states, instead there are things that happen, or that noticeably fail to happen. There are weird relatives, and stupid kid stuff (from both the parent and child angles). I like the visit to the beach and the creepy aspects of an old house.
A good book by a writer who is new-to-me gives me a list of titles to look forward to reading. Not only do I want to read everything else Boylan has written, but I want to read everything Richard Russo has written, too.