three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
53-July-Aug-2011
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A Memoir

missing imageAlexandra Styron, daughter of writer William Styron, is also the author of the novel All the Finest Girls (2001).

The Topic: There are plenty of memoirs in which the children of celebrated artists reveal what flawed people their parents were. But Alexandra Styron is more subtle than that. It's true that (per his daughter's account) the novelist could be alternately tyrannical and aloof as a father. But Styron's book reaches beyond the experience of her childhood. She rounds out her portrayal through interviews with the senior Styron's colleagues and investigation of his papers at Duke University. Thanks in part to her empathetic experience of her own development as an artist and a person, the overall effect is a memoir not designed to exact revenge, but to better understand an author's life.
Scribner. 304 pages. $25. ISBN: 9781416591795

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"If you consider Styron one of the great literary voices of the 20th century, nothing in his daughter's book will change your mind. But you may find it harder to reverence his novels quite as highly after learning of the price that Styron--and those closest to him--paid for their creation." Marjorie Kehe

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"She draws subtle comparisons to other giants of her father's literary fraternity--pugnacious, capricious, and sometimes cruel men like Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller--to outline the question at the heart of her reflection: Is his art enough of an excuse? The memoir's eloquent prose and fluid structure suggest his talent may be hereditary. ... " Keith Staskiewicz

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Styron's ardent, sophisticated and entirely winning memoir, Reading My Father, is a pointillistic accounting of the drama that brewed throughout her young life. ... For most of her young life, Alexandra Styron writes, she longed for a ‘ticket to the grown-ups' table.' This is a grown-up memoir, taut and true." Dwight Garner

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Alexandra Styron ... creat[es] a respectful warts-and-all portrait of her iconic father, William Styron, who died in 2006 at 81 and was one of the most significant American novelists of the 20th century. ... Styron successfully fleshes out her father's character, which could be alternately jovial, passionate, impatient, blustery, and even wrathful." Eric Liebetrau

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Reading My Father is a candid yet heartfelt portrait of a deeply troubled artist whose self-absorption and dedication exacted an onerous toll on his loved ones. ... She looks back in tenderness, not anger. It is simply a statement of fact when she observes that ‘my father's whole life was a preamble to personal armageddon.'" Ariel Gonzalez

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Styron's sharp literary instincts enable her to avoid being boring, as self-pitying people are, but occasionally, as when she blurts out that she was ‘too old to let him steal my happiness,' the reader may feel that the emotion would have been more forcefully conveyed without the foot-stamping. The most pensive question mark hanging over Reading My Father, however, is the author's apparent determination to disclose every available family secret." James Campbell

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
Reading My Father is excellently written and highly entertaining, but in the end it is simply troubling. ... The Bill Styron I knew was a proud man, maybe too proud at times. While I can imagine that he might value his daughter's ridicule of the undignified and embarrassing aspects of his final illness as a farcical, tragicomic gag at his own expense, I believe that he would be ‘inexpressibly sad,' a phrase he used, for the world to learn that he died unliked and unloved by one of his own children." Winston Groom

Critical Summary

A majority of critics found Alexandra Styron's portrayal of her father candid but fair. Several were impressed with the younger Styron's efforts to understand her parent as an artist despite their obviously strained relationship. Others, though less enthusiastic, were glad to see that Styron avoided the worst pitfalls of the genre. The only reviewer who seemed to take exception with Reading My Father was novelist Winston Groom, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the Styron of the book did not seem consistent with the man he knew. However, even Groom admitted that the book was well-written and engaging.

Supplemental Reading

Williams Styron's best known novels are his debut novel Lie Down in Darkness (1951), the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), and the National Book Award–winning Sophie's Choice (1979). Also consider his own memoir of his depression, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990).