main ad larger image margaret johnson email
main ad two


Fiction Ruined My Family: A Memoir

by Jeanne Darst

Riverhead Books | 2011 | 330 pages | $29.95

Reviewed by Emily Rosen

Jeanne Darst’s breezy style is at first somewhat off-putting (“Mom was an awfully swell looking lady,” “I heard Don DeLillo lived in town (Bronxville, N.Y.) but I never saw his ass.”), but she does display some Dave Barry type wit, and as she chronicles her adventures as a high-wired kid with ludicrously bad judgment, she includes dollops of insightful writing hidden in its creases.

   Jeanne is the youngest of four daughters, “a book hater, an accomplished reader, a paperwork junkie, and (Jeanne as a child) an idiot detective.” The family lived in St. Louis until Dad moved them to Bronxville, New York.

   Her mother is a major la dee dah. Nee Doris Grissy. she came from a stock of debutantes and prosperity and was the youngest person, as a child equestrian, to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in 1956. Her father, Stephen Darst, is an eternally hopeful freelance writer. He has yet to sell a book, and is perennially working on one about the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, which proves to be an underlying core theme that Jeanne struggles to unravel.

   A strong influence on Jeanne, her writer-father was a language purist and cautioned her against many writers’ sins. “As a kid, I was terrified of clichés….I was under the impression they could ruin your life, your hopes and dreams, bring down your whole operation if you didn’t watch it. They were a gateway language leading straight to (God forbid?) a business career, a golf marriage, needlepoint pillows…and a self- inflicted gun shot to the head that your family called a heart attack in your alma mater announcements.”

   Tipsy and outrageous, Mama finally became too much for Dad to handle  When their  struggle with the marriage finally reached its inevitable bottom, Mama was good to go. Finally, “With everyone else at college, Mom and Dad waited for me to graduate from high school so they could sell the house and get divorced. I felt like I was a slow eater and the check had been paid and everyone had coats on still sitting at the table, waiting for me to be finished.”

   “Dad had lots of rejections and no money, and during the period when the couple was waiting to split, Mom would be making family meals, while Dad was eating olives and chicken livers as the rest of the family ate lavishly. Dad was fending for himself probably for the first time in his life. And I would rather not have watched…while Mother seemed like Idi Amin, eating her lamb in front of him.”

   The story weaves in an out of Jeanne’s adventurous, risk-taking life, and her never-ending “career” moves: a gofer at a law firm, a co-owner of a housecleaning business, an acting teacher, a topless appearance on a TV show, a limo driver, a website designer, a window box gardener, and a playwright, all the while owning the soul of a writer. In the meantime, she was speeding on her own road towards alcoholic self-destruction.

    Her mother died of a stroke after years of addictive behaviors. “I had wanted her to die … If she died, then I would have had a mother who loved me but just happened to be dead. If she continued living, then I had a mother who was killing herself slowly while I did nothing.”

   Several events in her life lead to an awakening, many lending themselves to high humor, and Jeanne eventually straightens out and becames a kind of fringe member of the establishment. And also, sober.

   But her core issue remains and she struggles with coming to some symbiosis with her parental relationships. Her father’s obsession with Fitzgerald, and particularly Zelda’s life, is seen as a metaphor of his own relationship with his wife.

The question of how much a writer should indulge in his work, to the exclusion of family, is one that leaves Darst pondering. And in her quest, she manages to combine light heartedness with the truth of her angst.

Return to home page