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Memoir tells story of life behind a couple's fairy-tale success

Leslie Garis is the granddaughter of Howard and Lilian Garis, who wrote the Uncle Wiggily and Bobbsey Twins stories. Leslie Garis is the granddaughter of Howard and Lilian Garis, who wrote the Uncle Wiggily and Bobbsey Twins stories.

House of Happy Endings: A Memoir, By Leslie Garis, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 339 pp., illustrated, $25

Telling stories was a way of life for the Garis family. Under various pseudonyms, husband and wife Howard and Lilian Garis produced children's books that became household names in the early 1900s - the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift. Howard's best-selling Uncle Wiggily series brought him celebrity and glory. Family members took to heart the sunny outlook permeating these books: Be good, and all will be well. "I was . . . brought up on the morality of a make-believe rabbit," granddaughter Leslie Garis wryly observes in her affecting memoir, "House of Happy Endings."

In 1948, Leslie's father, Roger Garis, moved his family from Rye, N.Y., to the Dell, a castle-like house in Amherst. There, amid stately surroundings, he hoped to step out of his parents' shadow, achieve success as a publisher and playwright, become his own person. The family cultivated an air of grace and refinement. Roger always wore a tie to the dinner table; his wife, Mabel, busied herself with homemaking and decorating, trusting always "in the power of smiling and singing."

From an early age, Leslie observed the household from her secret vantage point in the dumbwaiter. Her memoir chronicles the disintegration of the family's dreams: Roger fought a long, losing battle for professional recognition and descended into depression and barbiturate addiction. The realities behind the pretty picture are painful to behold, beginning with Roger's tormented relationship with his parents. Lilian rarely missed an opportunity to belittle his abilities and aspirations; as a young father, Howard was more inclined to spend time with crowds of adoring children than his own son.

A lesser memoirist might have overplayed the obvious irony: The family that created famously wholesome children's books turns out itself to have been supremely troubled. But even as Garis lays out the family's neuroses and bitter conflicts, she shows their humanity; all prove too complex and vivid for the "dysfunctional family" frame.

Garis even manages to elicit sympathy for her terrifying grandmother, showing the spirited journalist and activist Lilian once was and the hardships and disappointments that left lasting scars.

The author is especially subtle and probing in portraying her father, the memoir's central figure. She describes an intelligent, sensitive man who wanted his life to matter. Roger read Albert Camus, T. S. Eliot, and George Santayana, seeking, his daughter suggests, "to discover what it meant to be a human being." From books he drew the idea that "beauty was essential to everything." A keen listener, he hoped to find in other people's words clues to living his own life. It was as if his lonely childhood had provided him with no foundation and he had to figure everything out alone. Sadly, his sense of self proved too fragile to withstand the hazards of a writing career. Rejection, the cancellation of a play, and financial insecurity shattered him.

Garis gained access to psychiatric reports on her father. Though she attributes his depression in part to biology, ultimately she resists clinical diagnoses or labels. Instead, she observes, reflects, and empathizes, offering both a coming-of-age story and a compassionate account of her father and the desires and fears that held him in their thrall.

Judith Maas is a freelance writer/ editor.

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