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Ah, The Poor Little Rich Girls: On The Astor Orphan and Chanel Bonfire

Juicy tales of Haves have always intrigued (to say the least) the Have-nots: it’s how tabloids make their money and why celebrity reality shows exist (anyone remember the decade-old Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?). Dissertations (even whole books!) could be written on celebrity culture in America (hey, hey, hey, there’s one called Celebrity Culture and The American Dream by Karen Sternheimer from Routledge). Those without money are fascinated by it and by those who have it. Now of course this is not true of everyone; but celebrity culture is everywhere in media (even NPR gets in on it sometimes). It’s hard to go a whole day without hearing or seeing something about one of the Kardashians, Kanye West, or whoever else is currently in the media’s eye. And I don’t even have tv.

But these examples are obvious; these people have cultivated and sought out media attention. There are plenty of Haves who purposefully stay out of the public eye, who do not cultivate celebrity status and media attention. They create and maintain a different kind of celebrity. Think of the girls in Gossip Girl. In the books/show, none of them are famous, they’re not (usually) getting mobbed by reporters every time they step outside. The only reason we care about them is because they have money, and it’s total voyeuristic pleasure and base wish-fulfillment to watch them spend it. They are certainly infamous in the circles they travel in, which readers/watchers all know is the Upper East Side of Manhattan. They are monied, and they have names.

Money and names are the central concerns of two recent memoirs. In The Astor Orphan by Alexandra Aldrich, being part of the Astor The Astor Orphanclan is enough to carry social status well beyond the fact that the estate to which the name is tied is partially falling down. But more than the name, it’s the Estate itself. Rokeby is one of the Husdon River Valley’s grand old estates, and Aldrich takes care to make sure the reader knows Who’s Who. At times it seems less like a story about an impoverished girl living on a once-grand estate and more about chronicling the albeit interesting family history. Aldrich’s memoir also chronicles her tumultuous relationships with the people living on the estate, various aunts, uncles, cousins and freeloaders and her growing disillusionment with them, especially her father, who had an obvious affair right under his wife’s nose and her grandmother, the only one who shows any sense of responsibility toward 10-year-old Alexandra. As her grandmother sinks more deeply into alcoholism, and her parents become more and more distant, Alexandra realizes that the only way to survive is to get off the crumbling estate and away from her family.

All of this sounds fairly compelling, which it could have been in the hands of a more skilled writer. The chief issue with The Astor Orphan is its lack of emotional connection to the reader and to the momentous events described over the course of the book. I feel like I have very little idea of who Alexandra is and who she will become. In fiction, it’s hard to care about a character when you don’t know them (narratively speaking). When this happens in memoir or biography, which this book is, the book is a complete failure for the reader. The author also lacks the ability to evoke the squalor she tries so hard to describe and does nothing with the people who form the background to the central drama of her loss of innocence. She never connects us emotionally to the events or people around her that she seems to try and tell us are central to the formation of her identity. This is what memoir is supposed to do, and in this respect, the book fails the reader.

Chanel BonfireChanel Bonfire, by Wendy Lawless, is an equally emotionally shallow recently published memoir. While Alexandra had property and a name but no money, Wendy and her sister Robin have money but no name. Both memoirs are about the havoc declining wealth and privilege, and the mentalities that accompany it, can wreak on children. These are, in essence, stories about poor little rich girls, literally and figuratively. In Lawless’s memoir however, the family started out with nothing and through the sociopathic social climbing of her mother, end up with quite a bit. Like Alexandra, Wendy and her sister are largely left to fend for themselves while their mother is out at parties, hobnobbing with other wealthy and famous people. After a disappointing second marriage in New York, Wendy’s mother, Georgann, whisks them off to London. The girls are supposed to spend the summer with their father, as usual, and be in his wedding to their stepmother, but right before leaving, Georgann tells the girls that their father doesn’t care about them and doesn’t love them at all. She’s just doing what’s best for them. It’s this kind of manipulation and utter lack of caring or empathy for her daughters that demonstrates Georgann’s monstrosity.

This would be a great moment in the narrative to really make your reader care about you and your situation. Unfortunately, Lawless doesn’t. Instead of writing about the emotional devastation something like this might cause, she breezes on to life in London, which includes parties, drinking, and American expats behaving badly in London and Paris. No mention of their father, who was previously shown to care quite a bit about them, is given until a cute boy innocently asks where their dad is. They say he is dead because it’s easier than saying they don’t know. The focus in this scene is a missed opportunity for a kiss.

This is right about where I am in Chanel Bonfire. I know it’s not fair to post a review of it, especially a negative review, when I haven’t even finished it yet. Part of the reason I included it here is because I read it back-to-back with The Astor Orphan and they are of a piece. Neither one succeeds in making us care about their authors and narrators. None of the horrors of their childhoods register as horrors for the reader; instead they come across as a clichéd dirty laundry list. The jacket describes Georgann as a “real-life Holly Golightly turned Mommy Dearest” and that’s exactly how she comes across, a stereotype of the two mixed together instead of a real person. I wil be happy to be proven wrong by the end of Bonfire and will adjust my review accordingly, but I have little hope for it. (*Update*:having finished the book, my critique still stands. The book actually got worse towards the end as it necessarily catapulted to its contrived happy ending.)

What distinguishes the two books however, is that Lawless does know how to tell a story. There is clear movement and the reader can tell that the story is building up to something (hopefully, anyway). There’s also progression of time; the Wendy starts out at 9, and by the middle of the book, she’s 14. Alexandra, however remains 10 for most of the book. There is little movement in Alexandra’s story, and the lack of progression, either emotionally or narratively, makes her eventual escape much less satisfying than it should be.

While these books are not examples of current celebrity culture, they do fall in the tell-all category. They have, however, picked up the vapidness of celebrity culture. There’s no emotional depth here, no showcase of narrative craft. Instead these memoirs come across at best as their authors’ attempt to process their parents and childhoods, and at worst an exposé on the true life of a “privileged” child. Because these books are memoirs, I want to be very clear: I do not discount or discredit the authors’ experiences. Nor am I personally attacking the authors. I am simply saying that as writers, they failed this reader’s expectations regarding memoir and good story telling due to lack of emotional and psychological depth and a perceived indifference towards their own experiences.

One Comment

  1. EsqMe wrote:

    Disagree with your ‘take’ on The Astor Orphan book. Ms. Aldrich writes from the floaty-slightly-adrift view of her 10 year old self. And you must remember she had little else to compare the sqalor to; the reference points would come after she left Rokeby. I rather enjoyed the book & felt it was a skillfully constructed plot.

    Thursday, January 2, 2014 at 1:33 am | Permalink

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