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A Memoir of Parents

A-ThemThe daughter of Russian émigré Tatiana Yakovleva and aristocratic Frenchman Bertrand du Plessix tells how, after the untimely death of her father early in World War II, she and her mother fled 1941 France with fellow expatriate Alexander Liberman to begin a new life in New York. Tatiana would become a world-famous hat designer, and Alexander a prominent fashion journalist and editorial director of the Condé Nast empire. The exotic Russian couple achieved a reputation for arrogance and self-absorption on their way to celebrity and success. As she delves into the world of mid-20th-century design and publishing, Francine explains why she loved her parents despite their notorious shortcomings—including their abysmal parenting skills.
Penguin. 544 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 1594200491

Intl Herald Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"What is so astonishing about Gray’s memoir is its completely stereoscopic vision: her ability to wield the cool detachment of a biographer while simultaneously drawing upon a daughter’s reservoirs of memory and emotion. … Them is an intense and remarkably powerful portrait, written with love, judgmental candor and at least a measure of forgiveness."
Michiko Kakutani

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"… a dazzling account of their lives, written with love but also with critical scrutiny that unravels ‘the webs of deceits ... they spun about their true selves.’ … [Her] book is a sterling example of the personal memoir exalted to cultural history." Heller McAlpin

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"For readers previously unfamiliar with the real-life characters, Them will open new worlds, ranging from 19th-century Russia to 20th-century France to 21st-century America. Within the sweeping scope are cameos so unforgettable, language so transcendent, that the book achieves the rare feat of offering something for everyone." Steve Weinberg

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Gray’s way with words, her insight into the human condition and her almost eerie sense of objectivity about her upbringing have converged to create an enthralling story of the primal bond between a child and her parents. And what parents—the Libermans are two of the most fascinating characters you’ll ever encounter in the pages of a memoir, or for that matter, any book." Mary Ann Gwinn

Houston Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Gray paints a confusing portrait of her mother: cold, arrogant, rude, yet the host of some of New York’s most star-studded parties, with regulars such as Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dali, Christian Dior, Yul Brynner, Coco Chanel, and Greta Garbo. … Though Gray’s reporting on her family’s history is exhaustive, her parents remain largely bewildering to her." Rachel Graves

New York Observer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Them: A Memoir of Parents … is a riveting, passionate and deeply confused book. … The author is too intelligent and decent a person to perpetrate a Parents, Dearest; her revenge, if it is revenge, is more subtle than that." Robert Gottlieb

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Having parsed the discrepancies between the devoted parents Tatiana and Alex purported to be and the self-involved, part-time guardians they were in practice, Gray seems oddly unwilling to question their own account of their standing in the world. … In the end, what proves most riveting about Gray’s recollections is not the dual portrait of two outsize individuals but the almost incidental delineation of the dynamic between them—the unspoken contract they entered into as a couple." Holly Brubach

Critical Summary

Her previous writings about the Marquis de Sade and Simone Weil prepared Gray to tackle the enigmatic life stories of her own infamously ruthless and narcissistic parents. Her skills as a journalist, biographer, and novelist lead the 75-year-old author, who began to write about her socialite family in 1967, to produce a story that is part biography, part memoir, and part history. Them is as much about relationships as it is about the individuals, and about the parent/child bond as much as the dynamic between her flamboyant parents. Although Gray approaches understanding of these relationships with as much honesty as she can muster, it nonetheless still eludes her.

Parents Dearest

Oh the Glory of It All | Sean Wilsey (2005): 3 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2005. Wilsey’s parents, and his dreaded stepmother, were the toast of San Francisco society.

The Glass Castle | Jeanette Walls (2005): 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2005. Visions of fantasy and a hardscrabble childhood by a New York gossip columnist make for interesting reading.