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Book review

‘Perfectly Miserable’ by Sarah Payne Stuart

Sarah Payne Stuart, “Perfectly Miserable.”

The author is shown as a child with her parents at their jazz party on Main Street in Concord.

Marginal note to self early in the reading of “Perfectly Miserable”: Be careful not to fault the book for the author’s unflattering . . . well . . . everything: her bad choices, bad credit, bad values, bad attitude. Does this mean we have a memoir devoid of self-aggrandizement? Yes it does.

Sarah Payne Stuart takes full-throttle aim at Concord, that allegedly too perfect town, home of Emerson, Thoreau (”the great picnicker”), and most of the Alcotts.

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She has to be admired for whitewashing nothing — not her childhood with her depressive mother, nor her shortcomings as parent, friend, volunteer, co-breadwinner, daughter, nor her husband’s often-dormant career as a documentary filmmaker, nor her brothers’ bad turns and breakdowns, nor — are they still talking to her? — her sons’ dirty laundry.

And, ouch, the characterization of “upright Concordians”! Stuart asks, “Who are these women who computerize spreadsheets for play-group assignments and tennis-lesson carpools . . . cry with joy when the children return home with their assignment for the class Colonial village?”

Hard on almost everyone, Stuart is hardest on herself, exemplifying the “Protestant predilection for self-analysis and self-loathing.” She admits to all manner of unbecoming tendencies, especially involving money she didn’t have and caring deeply and obsessively about what others thought. She and her husband, Charlie, moved into successively prestige-worthy houses — never McMansions of the nouveau riche kind, but noble dumps with history and character, which they could ill afford, hoping to please her mother, the book’s touchstone for the “innate unworthiness” the author contends is imbedded in the New England soul.

The town is both stage and stooge here; too much, I fear, too many strained parallels drawn to its literary forebears, especially to Marmee of “Little Women” fame, who, in real life — married to the megalomaniac/crackpot/ kook/self-styled messiah Bronson Alcott — called Concord “ ‘cold, heartless, brainless, soulless.’ ”

Off to Harvard, Stuart left Concord at 18. But return she did, married and pregnant with her third “to give my children the childhood I thought I’d had.”

“Homesick from birth” and never forgetting “the slightest lift of my mother’s brow could send me crawling” away, she hopes “one day, someday, the light of an approving smile would shine upon me.”

Concord residents are painted with a broad sarcastic brush, as if there is no diversity of religion, race, values, or fashion; even Unitarians who “agreed fiercely about everything.” Cheeky, cynical generalities abound, but always smart and crisp. “Charlie and I had thought we could raise our kids without the time-proven tool of guilt that had been employed by New England Protestants ever since they had braved the Atlantic in a leaky boat so their children would stop enjoying themselves,” she observes.

Oh the chutzpah on these pages! Stuart unapologetically describes dads visiting a classroom, “smiling blankly, blandly, needing a drink; their wives, fluttering, pleased to be seen in their element, dressed brightly in bulky knit sweaters and unflattering slacks, leaping to the fore to sign up for Pumpkin Festivals.”

It might well be in character for such lively writing to be seen by New Englanders as bracing rather than solipsistic. Though “names and some distinguishing characteristics of private individuals have been changed,” there will be a rush to guess who Bunny, Perky, Baby, Smudgie, and their fellow flinty millionaires are.

Throughout we feel the push-pull of love and disdain for Stuart’s depressed, well-connected (a first cousin of Robert Lowell), socially nervous mother. Sweetly oppressive, always close by, both parents worried “if we fixed up our house too much it would hurt the feelings of the former owners.” “[T]he truth was, when she died. I was released. Bereft, but also free.”

Though mother-daughter love in Protestant New England “pulses with the anxiety of never measuring up,” her mother is entirely sympathetic. To the world, hers was a life of leisure, breeding, and luck, rather than a struggle “for money, normalcy, and happiness.” Saddest of truths was Mrs. Payne’s manic depression that caused her to be institutionalized for the first year and a half of her daughter’s life.

With reference to the rosy, false family in “Little Women,” Stuart puts a spin on the adage, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all,” adding, “a principle . . . that has ruined the writing of many a WASP.”

Niceness takes a holiday here. It may not have been written if Stuart’s parents were alive or if she hadn’t left. “And now what does it matter that the table is beautifully set for twenty at Christmas with chocolate Santas at every place, for there is no one left to approve or disapprove.”

Elinor Lipman’s latest books are “The View from Penthouse B’’ and “I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays.’’
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