Scribner, 2011. ISBN 978-1-416-59179-5.
Reviewed by Trilla Pando
Posted on 05/12/2011
The father sits on the broad fireplace hearth, his arms up and gesturing. Surely he is telling a story to the eager and enchanted young girl leaning forward on the sofa. A happy, and calm domestic scene, and the photograph on the cover of Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron's family memoir. The Styron family was very much like the cover of the book presenting a happy facade while hiding dark secrets that even they had trouble facing. "Honest confrontation was not part of my family's skill set," Styron confides.
While the reader walks away knowing a great deal about the life and inward workings of author William Styron (Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie's Choice), this is not a biography; it is a memoir of a by-far youngest fourth child in a family beset by fame, fortune and misfortune. The happy times are happy, indeed almost spectacularly happy. Martha's Vineyard neighbor Ted Kennedy drops by on his neighbors unannounced. President and Mrs. Clinton come to a dinner so crowded that everyone under forty is seated at the "children's table" in the living room. The host and his friends want to talk politics; the President insists on talking books. There are trips to Europe and long vacations. A home in Connecticut as well as Martha's Vineyard. A good life—yes; in part.
When the dark times come, they are dark indeed. William Styron's deep and disabling battles with depression overcome the happiness of fame, fortune, friends and family. He can not write, and because he can not write he becomes depressed. Or, is it that because he is depressed, he can not write? His daughter wonders about the causality, but two facts remain: he is depressed; he cannot write.
This is, though, more than a story of a daughter, her father, and an illness. It is the tale of a strong family. In spite of the hardships of mental illness, Ms. Styron, her two sisters and her brother create strong lives for themselves, each following their individual dreams. Their mother, Rose, equally strong, manages to build her own life and live it even as her husband faces his own demons. Further, the four children and their mother stay close, the family ties grown strong.
The Styrons are a fascinating family, but they are a family throughout. In a letter that nineteen-year-old Alexandra Styron wrote to her father (the first she suddenly realized that she had ever written to him) she captures the feelings that still clearly exist these many years later. "You have been an ogre and a grouch, but you have also been one of the kindest, most generous men, too. I think I can speak for all your offspring in saying that we wouldn't dream of having anyone but you as our father."
The author of All the Finest Girls, a novel, Alexandra Styron has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times and Real Simple. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two children. Learn more at her website.
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