The Write Idea


The Liars’ Club

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 7:46 pm
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If you read the cover of Mary Karr’s first memoir (she’s written two more installments since), you’d have to conclude that she wrote The Best Memoir Ever. Maybe that first sentence gives away that I don’t quite share that opinion. I started The Liars’ Club at the beginning of the summer and just now finished it. Mostly these days I’ve concluded that life is too short to finish books you don’t love, but for some reason I found myself compelled to pick this book up again and again, trying to slog through it. What I really want to read is her more recent book, Lit, and I decided I’d appreciate it more if I had read the earlier installments of this three-part memoir. At this point I’m ambivalent about Lit, but not the least bit ambivalent about Cherry. I won’t be reading it.

Now, before you conclude that I really don’t like Mary Karr’s writing, I have to tell you that the opposite is true. I love her writing. That is, if by her writing I mean the way she can shape a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph.  Her background as a poet shows up in her gift for metaphor and her dazzling descriptions.  She is dead-on with dialects, creates characters as visible as those on a high-def, large-screen TV, and can be out-loud funny in the driest possible way.

Since I am a big fan of memoir (and am working with several people as they write theirs), I pondered many times over these past months why I just couldn’t get into this book.

Was it believability?  It’s not that I doubt that the events in the book happened (as shocking as some of them were), but I did doubt that her 6-year-old self really had the philosophic, metaphorical responses to the events shown here.  Occasionally, the author owns up to this, as when she describes a picturesque night after a horrible revelation has occurred and she notes, “I didn’t think this particularly beautiful or noteworthy at the time, but only do so now.”  Right. I buy that. But through most of the book, you would think that this small child witnessing terrifying behavior sat around thinking poetic thoughts. And maybe she did. She does seem to be something of a prodigy. Still.

Was it likability? She paints a panoply of wild characters, each with his or her own pattern of speech, carefully drawn. She’s good at it. The main characters are the immediate family:  Mary, her sister, her mother and daddy. Besides finding her own character a little too full of herself to be real, I did have trouble liking these folks. Her dad was somewhat lovable in spite of himself and her sister admirable in her determination to survive the crazy family, but I was bored with mom by page 60. Which means I had another 260 pages to go.

Which may be the main problem.  320 small-print pages dealing with two years in her life, ages 6-8.  An important aspect of memoir is summary. She could have used some more of it. Maybe quite a bit more. In the final section we jump ahead a dozen or so years and finally discover a source of mom’s neuroses. It’s awfully late by then. I realize that the author had to live those first 20+ years not understanding her mother’s insanity, but does that mean we have to suffer with her?

This book comes highly recommended, so I’m open to the possibility that I’m just being snarky here or I was in a bad mood every time I picked it up. For four months. Those of you who’ve read it — what did you think?


  1. I have to say that I liked Lit more than Liars’ Club, but I’m sort of into recovery literature. Don’t know quite why. Best recovery book EVER is Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. Have you read it?

    Comment by Jackie — 10/19/2010 @ 7:55 pm | Reply

  2. I haven’t read it — thanks for the suggestion. Yeah, I love recovery/redemption books, too, which is why I really wanted to read Lit. We like them for the same reason Bob Marley sang “Redemption Song.” 🙂

    Comment by ljcollins — 10/19/2010 @ 8:23 pm | Reply

  3. Well, I haven’t read any of her stuff so I can’t judge. But it’s okay to not like something, even if all the cool people think you should. 😀

    Comment by PJ — 10/19/2010 @ 11:44 pm | Reply

  4. Thanks for the permission, Peej. Two people have now confirmed that Lit is much better, so I may try it. But not right away.

    Comment by ljcollins — 10/20/2010 @ 4:03 pm | Reply

  5. Someone I respect loved The Liars’ Club, so it is on my short list of books to read. This kinda sets me back a bit. Maybe I should just read Lit as a separate stand alone work.

    I’m like Jackie in that I loved, loved the Caroline Knapp book. Highly recommend it.

    Comment by Episcogranny — 10/21/2010 @ 8:28 am | Reply

  6. Lots of people love this book. I am clearly in a minority. But even those folks I’ve talked to who’ve read both this one and Lit say Lit is better, so maybe just skip ahead to that one. Gotta look for Knapp’s book.

    Comment by ljcollins — 10/21/2010 @ 9:03 am | Reply

  7. […] finish: finally getting around to Mary Karr’s Lit. Since I wasn’t wildly in love with The Liar’s Club, it took me a while to get to this one. Skipped right over Cherry. The other memoir is not one I […]

    Pingback by Memoirs Galore « The Write Idea — 07/19/2011 @ 6:50 pm | Reply

  8. […] take it all back. Well, maybe not all. I did say you create beautiful sentences and so forth. I stayed up much […]

    Pingback by Dear Mary Karr « The Write Idea — 07/28/2011 @ 11:45 am | Reply

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