Short Takes

Email|Print| Text size + By Barbara Fisher
February 3, 2008

By Philippe Grimbert
Translated, from the French, by Polly McLean
Simon & Schuster, 152 pp., $19.95

At 15, Philippe Grimbert learned his true history. He was not the first child of his beautiful, beloved, and mysterious parents, but his father's second child by his first wife, his mother's sister. His father's first child and first wife, Grimbert's half brother and aunt, died in Auschwitz. The proper French name Grimbert had originally been Grinberg.

Told in the first person, Grimbert's story moves from childish fairy tale through adolescent fantasy to adult understanding. Like many children, Grimbert invented a story of his parents' perfect lives before his birth. From them, he learned little to support or refute his beautiful fiction. Secrets breed curiosity. Grimbert rummaged through attic trunks uncovering letters, pictures, and a child's stuffed dog. With an artful combination of innocence and guile, he pried the truth from Louise, his parents' old friend. With Louise's information, he rewrote his original fiction. This revised account is terrible. Uncertainty, loss, betrayal, guilt, remorse, murder, and suicide replace certainty, love, innocence, birth, health, and growth. While much here has a generalized, romanticized feeling, the repeated and redefined image of a dog - first a stuffed animal, then a real pet - lends specific and heartbreaking detail to the story.

Manic: A Memoir
By Terri Cheney
Morrow, 256 pp., $24.95

I've read many good descriptions of the dull misery of depression but few of the reckless volatility of mania. Cheney, who has suffered both, writes with passionate clarity about depression and the lure of suicide but with especially keen intensity about mania. Mania, which "lights up the every nerve ending . . . like a volcanic eruption," drove her to approach driving, men, and her career with complete abandon.

Cheney begins with a horrifying story, a suicide attempt that turns into a freakish brutal sexual assault and a more freakish unintentional rescue, by the same scary stranger. The extremes of this bizarre incident duplicate the bipolar extremes of Cheney's life. She fluctuated between the highs of acute grandiose euphoria and the lows of uncaring, inert despair. When manic, she starved herself; when depressed, she ate everything she could find (including a box of baking soda). A beautiful, bright LA entertainment lawyer, Cheney labored to keep her illness a secret, inventing bouts of the flu and dental appointments to cover her professional lapses. Giddy and unbalanced or unwashed and undercover, she tried a variety of medications, rehab and psychiatric facilities, doctors, and finally electroshock therapy. The treatment, which wiped out her short-term memory and left her puzzled about the uses of a fork, sent her first into psychosis and suicidal behavior, then seems to have stabilized her. At the end of her memoir, able to write about her experiences, she feels cautiously hopeful. But, as she well knows, "the cruelest curse of the disease is also its most sacred promise. You will not feel this way forever."

The Spare Wife
By Alex Witchel
Knopf, 285 pp., $23.95

I thought I would never get tired of reading an insider's take on the beautiful, rich, and spoiled ladies of New York society. But I feel not only tired but sullied by reading Witchel's smart and savvy account about this group of movers, shakers, and climbers.

Ponce and Shawsie, gutsy old gals, take down Babette, a younger version of themselves, when she tries to move in too far, too fast. Babette, young, gorgeous, and ambitious, wants it all - a glamorous magazine job, a rich husband, and a grand Park Avenue apartment - and she wants it now. Babette miscalculates Ponce's position and resources; Ponce is the "spare wife" of the title, the attentive, helpful, and harmless friend to both men and women. Babette fails to gain all of her goals, but she achieves the rich husband and the exclusive real estate. Ponce and Shawsie, bonded in sisterhood, get what they want. Cheating husbands pay. Betrayed wives move on. Everyone smoothly accepts the appropriate compromises and accommodations required by this world ruled by sex, favors, and flattery.

Is it possible to care about a culture where women empathize with a friend who moves from one Southampton beach house to another one farther inland because "she's tired of hearing the ocean"?

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

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