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Reading My Father: A Memoir, by Alexandra Styron

Reading My Father

  • A Memoir
  • By Alexandra Styron
  • Scribner, 281 pages, $28.99

In Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron writes hauntingly of life as the daughter of William Styron, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice, widely considered to be one of the best novels of the 20th century.

Styron ruled his household from behind closed doors: His bedroom door was closed until noon, when he would wake up, and the door to his office was closed throughout his writing workday, after which he would emerge for a late "European-style" dinner, complete with the copious wine that became the door closing him off from his children every night.

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When Alexandra Styron was growing up in Connecticut in the 1970s, her serious television habit was sometimes interrupted by a tirade from her father regarding her half-wittedness. Christmas meant tiptoeing around his violent distaste for the insane materialism it represented. But as much as her father confounded and terrified the young Alexandra, she adored being "Bill Styron's daughter." It gave her cachet among her friends and access to a life of East Coast privilege: multiple homes, private schools and a household staff.

Styron's rages at his family were perhaps an early sign of the depression that overtook his life in 1985, at the peak of his career. On a trip to receive an award in Paris, he hit suicidal rock bottom. In writing eloquently about the experience in Darkness Visible, he became the poster child for surviving mental illness with dignity. The public esteem for his writing never suffered, nor did his position in society. He was still the Martha's Vineyard party host to the likes of Ted Kennedy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and those Christmases he made every effort to ruin were balanced by the cheerful stylings of Leonard Bernstein on the piano.

To be transported to the era of novelists as celebrity heroes, through Styron's letters and interviews with his friends, is a pleasure. But the true reader for Reading My Father is the William Styron scholar eager for a close biographical reading of his fiction. Styron was ambitious and provocative, and his daughter provides ample evidence that he chose his controversial subject matter carefully, in order to insert himself into national conversations about race (as a white man affecting the first-person voice orchestrating a slave rebellion) and about the horrors of the Holocaust (by portraying a Polish Catholic woman's survival of Auschwitz rather than a Jew's). She carefully excerpts the passages in his novels and short stories that most directly show the intersection of experience and imagination in his work.

However, the memoir content of the book feels mediated, and summarized. Ostensibly out of respect for her mother's privacy, there are few scenes featuring Rose Styron, an enigmatic mix of wealth, wisdom and saintly patience the reader wants more of. Toward the end of the book, Alexandra does pull the family curtains back a bit more to discuss her father's second, less-publicized breakdown, but she moves through these experiences with unsatisfying brevity.

Her father apparently never read her first novel, All the Finest Girls, which must have been a terrible disappointment. But she never quite unleashes that anger. Instead, she writes that she failed as an actress because she wasn't vulnerable enough, and while this book is by no means another failure, some of that protective armour still lingers.

Among his cohort, William Styron was one of the least prolific (his friend Norman Mailer, in contrast, wrote 12 novels). Alexandra Styron's ultimate quest was to find out whether her father could not write because he was mentally ill, or if it was his obsession with writing every sentence perfectly that made him ill to begin with.

It also seems that she used this project to make peace with her father through his work, which seems fitting, considering how important it was to him, and how much he put of himself into it.

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What results is a moving, if sometimes cagey, filial appreciation of the quality over quantity of William Styron's novels and, ultimately, an appreciation for the complicated man he was.

Literary legacies

Alice and Rebecca Walker

Rebecca Walker, whose mother, Alice, wrote the 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winner The Color Purple, is one of the better-known memoirists to criticize the way their author-parent raised them. Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence describes the younger Walker's painful teenage years, when her radical feminist mother rejected her as a symbol of the enslavement women have to their children, comparing having baby Rebecca to the early deaths that squashed the literary greatness of the Brontë sisters.

The Waughs

Evelyn Waugh ( Brideshead Revisited, Scoop) is the most famous of the Waughs, but his elder brother, Alec, was actually a published novelist before him. Alec was their writer-publisher father's known favourite, a slight that gave Evelyn his acerbity. Evelyn's son, Auberon, also wrote several novels, but was more celebrated for his columns in Private Eye, a magazine of British political satire. Arthur's son, Alexander, records the contentious family history of the Waugh writers in Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family.

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Rebecca Goldstein and Yael Goldstein Love

While Yael Goldstein Love's first novel, The Passion of Tasha Darsky, is the story of a mother-daughter musical rivalry, the author says of her own philosopher-novelist mother, Rebecca (The Mind-Body Problem, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God), "We have a boringly untroubled relationship."

Carol Shields and Anne Giardini

Carol Shields, winner of the 1993 Governor-General's Award and 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Stone Diaries, sadly didn't live to see her daughter, Anne Giardini, publish her first novel, The Sad Truth About Happiness, in 2005. Both women's books continue to win over readers because of their shared conversational writing style.

Frances and Anthony Trollope

Classic Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope's mother, Frances, set off from England to America in 1827, her husband drowning the family in bad debts at home, and there she became a successful novelist to support her children, rising at 4:30 every morning to write fiction before they woke up. It seems no literary resentment passed between mother and son, as Anthony wrote favourably of Frances in his autobiography, "Work sometimes came hard to her, so much being required - for she was extravagant, and liked to have money to spend; but of all people I have known she was the most joyous, or, at any rate, the most capable of joy."

Lucy Silag is the author of the Beautiful Americans novels for young adults.

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