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?