[11 June 2013]
Mothers! No other topic besides addiction has proved so ripe for the subject of memoir. Cheryl Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life”, which eventually expanded into a full-length memoir, 2012’s Wild, nails down the reason for this constant mother-memoirizing in its last two sentences: “I stood up and got into my truck and drove away from a part of my mother. The part of her that had been my lover, my wife, my first love, my true love, the love of my life.”
In the first chapter of Shocked, Patricia Volk watches her mother prepare for her job as the hostess of the restaurant her husband owns, and the effect is one of such backward-looking tenderness that it takes Strayed’s “my first love” proclamation to another level:
“When she perches on the stool we are almost the same height. I stand behind her to the left. That way I can watch from every angle. I can see her reflection in all three face-mirrors and see the real her too, her flesh-and-blood profile closest to me… Sometimes, when she adjusts the mirrors, I can see thousands of her, each face nesting a slightly smaller face. The lace vee of her robe gets tiny, tinier, smaller than a stamp, until it vanishes.
‘Is there a word for that?’ I ask.
‘Phantasmagoria, darling,’ my mother says.”
Immediately, the lines of Audrey Morgen Volk’s portrait are drawn: she is beautiful, she knows she is beautiful, she has the answer to just about every question. Like all women, she contains multitudes, and it is Patricia Volk’s task to parse the different versions of her. Early on, Volk asks the crucial question that frames the rest of Shocked: “What do you do when you’re little and know you can’t be like your mother?”
Other writers might find that taking this question and turning it into a compelling story would be a dreary task; Volk approaches it with elegance, erudite quirkiness, and uncloying nostalgia. She traces her mother’s life from young beauty to restaurateur wife to psychologist and mother with a deft hand, but the mild drama of Audrey’s charmed life (let’s call it a “riches to riches” story) pales in comparison to the miniscule details and asides. It’s a memoir of anecdotes, and we’re lucky that the anecdotes are rich—rich as a dinner at Morgen’s Restaurant, plush as one of the minks Audrey was fond of capturing for herself and her daughters.
Though Audrey’s story would undoubtedly charm readers on its own, Shocked also includes a sketch of Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian fashion designer whose surreal clothing and signature shade of hot pink shocked and delighted the world. There’s an explicit connection between Schiaparelli and Volk’s mother: Audrey was a fan of Schiap’s fragrances. (Volk herself calls her mother’s“Shocking” cologne “the smell of our youth,” takes possession of her last bottle, and wrangles it triumphantly through airport security.)
But Volk goes deeper, pitting Audrey’s rules, well-groomed dicta and classic beauty against Schiap’s jolie-laide wildness: “[Schiaparelli] rarely leaves the house without a hat: the Monkey Hat, the Tiny Fedora, the Pancake, the Poker Chip… The major difference between Schiap’s clothes and my mother’s is, Schiap’s are designed to draw attention to the clothes, not the face. Wearing her clothes is a performance, dressing as theater.”
At the end of the book, there is a picture of Audrey in a stunning, pristine wedding. There’s also a photo of Schiap’s torso encased in a translucent “cellophane dress”. Yet Audrey’s veil was modeled on a Schiaparelli hat. Volk never ceases to show the phantasmagoria, the multiple visions, that connect her mother to the fashion designer.
But a memoir about a mother and a biography of a fashion designer cannot help but be about their author, and so Volk uses her subjects to explain herself. After all, when Volk wonders what to do when she knows she can’t be like her mother, the subject of the question is not her mother, but Volk. The obvious answer is to rebel. Volk rebels, but it’s a rebellion of ideals, not actions.
Volk idealizes Schiaparelli, whose memoir Shocking Life she reads one crucial morning; the memoir “transforms” Volk and “defuses” Volk’s mother. To Volk, Schiap “does things my mother disdains, yet when she grows up she’s a success. Which means I could do what my mother doesn’t approve of and still be all right.”
Near the end of Shocked, it’s mentioned that Schiap’s memoir was critically panned, and that she never wrote another book. No matter, Volk seems to say: if Elsa Schiaparelli’s shocking life inspired at least one staid life to effloresce into something a little more daring, then it deserves it exist.
And that’s what appears to be the secret wish of Shocked: to inspire a young (or young at heart) reader by presenting the twin paragons of femininity—Audrey’s by-the-book radiance and Schiap’s naughty originality. The memoir, with its constant daydreamy asides and its three coming-of-age stories, is nothing if not an encouragement to take pleasure in details, to luxuriate in the minuteness of beauty, and I believe that its potency can accomplish what Volk may be intending. Who’s to say some young lady won’t find Shocked as intoxicating as Volk found Schiap’s own tale?