Eve Pell on Old Money and Its Discontents
Posted on Sep 25, 2009
By Eve Pell
The “Me” of the subtitle chronicles the author’s adventures as he deals with the strictures imposed by his heritage and his family, variously confronting, avoiding and otherwise coping—or failing to cope—with that upbringing. Under the lens go his love life, his therapy, his interactions with his family as well as his navigation through the wider world as he strives to become a happy adult. The reader follows as he comes to understand—and struggles to unlearn—the attitudes and behavior exemplified and taught by his parents and grandparents. The author calls it his “suit-of-armor problem”—emotional armor—and it’s a doozy. Along the way, he is fearless in his self-revelations, noting that one ex-lover described him as “a wet linen sheet that had been crumpled up and left in the freezer.” (There’s that image of coldness again.)
A list of artifacts inherited by his parents evokes the social class from which they came: bouillon spoons, demitasse spoons, a pea spoon, a butter pick, an egg warmer. And the loss of fortune had its effects on the family psyche. The Friends who coasted on inherited wealth discovered in the decline “a tidy recipe for despair.” His mother never got over the childhood abandonment by her father; her sense of deprivation pervaded her adult life and that of her children.
Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor
By Tad Friend
Little, Brown and Company, 368 pages
But despite the period in the 1960s when the family income was low and their station wagon had that hole in the floor, the reader doesn’t get a strong sense that the Friends declined terribly in wealth and status. His father became president of Swarthmore College, and, in 1986, his parents gave each of their children $60,000 to use as they chose. (Friend spent his, as well as a subsequent legacy from a grandparent, on psychoanalysis. “My birthright in wherewithal seemed to me almost perfectly balanced by my birthright in repression.”) He expresses some ambivalence about the decision to commit himself to success as a writer and climbing the career ladder—though of course he did; since 1998, he’s been a staff writer for The New Yorker. One hangover from his privileged status annoys his wife: his suspicion that perhaps he doesn’t really have to work at anything he doesn’t like because surely, if they run out of money, another inheritance will come along.
And now to my quibbles: As if to avoid getting into any one issue too deeply, Friend tends to switch subjects a bit abruptly. I’m getting really interested in his ambivalence about work and money, for instance, when suddenly he is on to an uncle, the uncle’s wives and children, an ex-wife’s son, and that son’s death. I find a few too many relatives and family friends who make cameo appearances, exhibit some peculiar Wasp behavior, then exit the book. Moreover, it would have made tracking those relatives easier if the overly simplified family tree at the start had included a few more limbs and branches. In addition, I found some word choices to be mannered. “… Charles was a gamecock known as ‘Cootie’ ”; someone else “had a pawky sense of humor”; “a door snicking shut.” His mother, whose character was chatoyant, wrote in a surprisingly low, scurrying hand.
But overall, Friend has done a fine job of taking the reader inside the world in which he grew up; he shows how much of it he has overcome and how much still remains part of him.
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