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'Perfectly Miserable' is a bittersweet look at author Sarah Payne Stuart's New England hometown

'Miserable' is a portrait of Stuart's uneasy, idealized relationship with the town of Concord, Mass., in which she grew up. 

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Perfectly Miserable
By Sarah Payne Stuart
Penguin Group
320 pp.

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Nostalgia – a deep longing for the home she wishes she had known – pervades Perfectly Miserable, Sarah Payne Stuart's more-bitter-than-sweet lament for the fraying world of old New England WASPs in which she grew up. 

Stuart is too self-deprecating and bitingly humorous to be accused of whining, but her memoir is undercut by its harsh, caustic tone – a double-edged sword that slashes at everything, including herself. Of course, this self-criticism is part of the "unforgiving" and "disapproving" Protestant culture she is writing about. One of the book's stronger sections was excerpted in The New Yorker, but beginning with its title, "Perfectly Miserable" is neither as funny nor as moving as I suspect it was meant to be.

Stuart published a better book about her family, "My First Cousin Once Removed," in 1998. Centered on her mother's first cousin, the poet Robert Lowell, her family history deftly addressed the burdens of various inheritances, including social class, uncomfortable relationships with money, and a strong familial strain of bipolar disease.

Stuart takes up many of the same themes in "Perfectly Miserable" but focuses this time around on her uneasy, idealized relationship with her picture-perfect hometown, Concord, Massachusetts, to which she returns as an adult, "homesick for a childhood I had invented as surely as Louisa May Alcott had invented hers." Never one to whitewash her behavior, she openly admits that, pregnant with her third child, "I had come back to Concord to improve upon my parents' child rearing, at the same time wishing to gain my parents' approval for doing so." That she deems herself a failure at both is almost a given.

At the heart of her story is her relationship with her frequently depressive mother, who was institutionalized for mental illness for the first 18 months of young Sarah's life. Stuart doesn't impose facile cause-and-effect links between this absence and her own insecurity, but she doesn't deny a connection. Maternal approval, pursued even at the cost of severe migraines, becomes her ever-elusive holy grail.

Yet, painfully aware that she is once again writing about "what I always ended up writing about: my parents," and self-conscious about navel-gazing, Stuart attempts to broaden her purview to encompass Concord's most famous residents – Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and her childhood hero, Louisa May Alcott. Many of the parallels she draws with these writers seem stretched as thin as her and her husband's over-extended budget, so we understand why her editor "slashed away [much of] the historical writing I'd spent years researching." Stuart reports having asked her, "Shall I just give up and keep writing about myself on and on forever?" "Yep," her editor replies.

Fortunately, her editor didn't cut all of the local history, for Stuart is hilariously acerbic about Alcott's incompetent, megalomaniac father, whom she calls, among other slurs, "the useless Bronson." As for Thoreau, whom she dubs "the great picnicker," she writes, "How can I not love and pity Thoreau? He was as neurotically attached to his mother and childhood and hometown as I am."

But she is at her lively best when describing real estate in the town she refers to as "a Protestant Disneyland," and her own frequent moves, driven by house lust and financial necessity. Connoisseurs of antique architecture will understand the draw after poring over the book's many photographs. Indeed, a better title for "Perfectly Miserable" might have been one of its chapter headings: "Transcendental Real Estate." 

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Stuart comments astutely that "the one luxury the old money permit themselves is a well-proportioned house in the right part of town, big enough to allow its owners to complain that they can't afford to live there." She contrasts the expansive front halls and luxuriously high ceilings with "ice cold" bedroom floors covered by "a strip of thin, fraying carpet for one's feet to land upon from the tall, creaky, inherited bed (with its original mattress)." 

She also boldly highlights the disparities between the permissive, profligate, over-programmed mansion-dwellers of today and the frugal "matriarchs of my youth, a landscape of cherished but not always cherishing women – mending their swimsuits, buying gingerly at the A&P, holding up the bank with their satchels of rolled pennies, attacking their lawn with broken bamboo rakes." She observes sharply, "At the root of the tangled New England neurosis is a deep respect for the money it loathes."

In writing about the fusty, tradition-bound peccadilloes of waning WASP culture, Stuart adds her voice to a swelling chorus, which includes Tad Friend's "Cheerful Money" and  George Howe Colt's "The Big House." But "Perfectly Miserable" is a more personal, confessional, and self-critical book, neither perfect nor miserable – a burn-your-bridges good-bye-to-all-that emancipation proclamation written from the safe remove of New York, with neither parents left in Concord's assisted living facility nor children left in its schools to suffer the backlash.

Heller McAlpin, a frequent contributor to CS Monitor, reviews books regularly for NPR.org and The Washington Post and writes the Reading in Common column for The Barnes & Noble Review.


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