[27 November 2011]
It’s clear from early in Jeanne Darst’s memoir, Fiction Ruined my Family that her non-traditional upbringing built character. This is a pertinent reminder, as the book’s depressing themes of alcoholism and unfulfilled dreams could easily turn into a sob fest. But Darst has the comedic timing and ear for dialogue that make her writing both entertaining and enlightening.
Darst, who is also an actress and playwright, constructs her memoir in a series of wittily named chapters like “Les Missourables” and “Give Us this Day our Daily Bourguignon”. She begins in her hometown of St. Louis, where she’s the youngest of four daughters in a prominent St. Louis family. Her relatives on her dad’s side include a great uncle who was mayor of St. Louis, and grandparents who were both well-known journalists. Darst’s father was also a journalist, but gave up reporting to try writing fiction. Her mother comes from a wealthy St. Louis family, and was once a champion teenage equestrian who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The family moves to Amagansett, Long Island when Darst is seven. They plan to only stay for a year, just long enough for her father to finish writing his novel. But instead her parents spend most of their time socializing with other writers, and her father makes little progress on his own writing. The family never returns to St. Louis, and they eventually move to Westchester County. Her father gets a job in the city at CBS, and her mother takes on the role of an upper middle-class housewife, albeit one who stands over the stove drinking and chain smoking. However, this period of normalcy is brief, as her dad quits after only six months to return to his novel. Darst’s mother continues to drink heavily, and the family lives meagerly off her inheritance and by selling family heirlooms.
Darst’s adolescent years are filled with the kind of scenarios that could easily be plots of a quirky sitcom. She recounts the time her mother showed up at a keg party she was attending, already drunk and ready to fill her cup. Her dad is constantly around, spending his days in a cluttered office, always ready to talk about his literary idols, especially F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her mom grows increasingly frustrated by his inability to provide for the family. When Darst goes away to college at SUNY-Purchase, the parents divorce and move to the city.
Darst continues drinking in college, but also finds a passion for playwriting and acting. She must reconcile the fact that she’s turned out like both of her parents, a writer and an alcoholic. After college Darst assumes the life of many creative types in New York: working dead-end jobs, living in crappy apartments, and drinking too much. Her relationship with her parents is mercurial. Darst’s father continues to be an endearing but frustrating presence in her life, and her mother becomes increasingly reclusive in her small Manhattan apartment.
By contrast, her sisters all lead conventional adult lives with kids and permanent residences. Eventually Darst hits rock bottom when she looks in the mirror and sees her mother staring back at her. She gets sober, gets married and has a son. It’s not until her mom dies unexpectedly, alone in an apartment filled with mice droppings, that the true sadness of her mother’s illness and lost potential are realized.
The tone of the memoir is droll, but also shows that Darst cares deeply about her family, flaws and all. Earlier this year Darst read an excerpt of her memoir on the radio program, This American Life, and this is a fitting format for such conversational writing style. This is her first book, and Darst probably has enough material for a sequel (or two), but even if her future subject matter is unrelated to her family, she’s earned a captive audience with this debut.