Eager reader of history, mystery, classics, biographies, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, and etc. My reviews are mostly positive--I rarely finish or write about books I don't enjoy. My TBR is too high for that.
Part self-depreciating, scathingly honest, bitingly funny memoir, and part town history, author biography, literary critique, Perfectly Miserable mesmerized me with its multi-tiered perspective, frequent revelations, and consummate writing. Sarah Payne Stuart grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, and though she was perfectly miserable much of the time memory and desire are funny things. She hightailed it out of Concord as soon as she was old enough, but found herself deciding to move back when she had young children of her own, picturing for them an ideal childhood in the town where Thoreau, Emerson and the Alcotts lived, even though that was far from her own experience. Things, of course, didn’t work out exactly as planned, but then again neither did the lives those Transcendentalists.
The Puritans and Transcendentalists left a mixed legacy for the people of Concord, and Payne spends a good part of the book on their personal lives, which is fascinating, and on how their history and philosophies are still influential, especially in old New England families like hers, but not always with good results. I don’t have Payne’s real estate cravings, she moved her family every few years, usually by choice, always expecting social redemption, or parental approval, or a more exact approximation of the ideal New England lifestyle, but she and I brought up our children close enough in time that I can relate to many of her child-rearing choices (promote self-esteem! don’t burden them with meaningless chores!) and subsequent mishandlings. Even so, while reading along I sometimes couldn’t help but want to ask her in amazement why, why, why did you say that to your mother or child, or think that, or believe that tack would work, and yet she makes you totally see it too, and understand how it all made sense to her at the time.
Because Perfectly Miserable is about how Payne’s life has been affected by the literature and lives of Transcendentalists and Puritans the book it most nearly reminds me of is the also thoughtful and engrossing My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, though the two books have very different tones. I first encountered this material in a shortened form as a New Yorker article--which oddly or not was the same way I became aware of My Life in Middlemarch--and Payne’s article was so promising and fascinating it left me determined to read her book. In book form it is maybe a little overly long in the middle, or at least my interest diminished briefly, but the concluding chapters are strong again and most of the time I was reading I couldn’t put this book down.