General Fiction Reviews

The Mother-in-Law Diaries by Carol Dawson

Washington Square Press, March 2000.
Trade Paperback, 284 pages.
ISBN: 0671040855.
Ordering information:

The Mother-in-Law Diaries
by Carol Dawson The Mother-in-Law Diaries by Carol Dawson is an absolute delight to read; it is written from a completely unexpected point of view. The book is written in diary or letter form by Lulu Penfield to her eldest son, Tristan, who has just done the unthinkable: turned her into a mother-in-law by getting married. Lulu deals with this new situation by telling the stories of each of her relationships with the mothers of the young men in her life. The basic wisdom and insight that comes from this romp through the marital minefield is that one does not just marry a man. One also marries the woman who raised the man, and like it or not you will in a way be living with her as well. According to Lulu "we girls pick the women we'll join by picking the boys we love. The boy stands there is all his tender glory. You only have eyes for him. Meanwhile a woman whose existence you acknowledge only in principle starts seeping into your life the moment you say 'I will.'" To some readers this will come as completely unwelcome -- and even perhaps totally inaccurate -- news. However, by accepting this theory the reader will allow Ms. Dawson to weave a marital odyssey that defines and describes women and their relationships with their sons. The author appears to have reached out to and discovered something to be admired or learned from each of these women, all of whom engaged in liaisons with a rather long list of inept and unimpressive males.

On another level this book is a celebration of what it means to be female and heroically play the absurd hand that the gene pool may have dealt her. Not since the Biblical account of Ruth and Naomi has this relationship been described in a manner which reflects the dignity and courage of middle aged women. After each conjugal misadventure, the author sums up the problem and comes up with either an insight or at least a whimsical comment. Lulu describes her peregrinations as serial monogamy.

Lulu's chance collection of mothers-in-law is as varied as the young men with whom she falls in love. The heiress, full of Dallas elegance, appears to be the mother-in-law who got away and the one that young Lulu was the most eager to keep as a mentor. Lulu was learning to eat Beluga caviar in the morning and make appropriate comments about Japanese erotic art. Lulu only in due time found that this woman of consummate taste and great erudition was possessed of real art, Bonnards, Picassos, and Braques, but was also saddled with a husband whose only passion was for dove season and making sure there were enough javelinas in south Texas to insure a decent hunting season. Lulu concluded that Bo, the heiress, was deeply sad. A family secret hinted at, guessed at but never discussed, bound all family members, because to mention it would have been in poor taste.

The last mother-in-law mentioned was called the Ghost. Lulu discovers her husband's den where he goes to work and dream, with the help of a stash of marijuana, had been decorated to perfection with his mother's possessions. That is his secret safe place. When he discovers that Lulu's teen aged son has stolen his stash, this ends the marriage.

The Mother-in-Law Diaries is a book of wisdom, adventure of the conjugal kind, and insight into an aspect of life most of women will encounter. It is a great book to read--especially if you enjoy a different perspective.

--Sarah Reaves White

Writing New York: A Literary Anthology Edited by Phillip Lopate

Washington Square Press, April 2000.
Trade paperback, 1032 pages.
ISBN: 0671042351.
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Writing New York: A Literary Anthology
Edited by Phillip Lopate Phillip Lopate, a native New Yorker, has written an enormous book about a huge city with a history almost as long as that of our nation. New York, the conduit through which a very large percentage of American citizens entered the nation, has always had a profound influence on the personality of the United States. In his introduction Mr. Lopate states, "that almost every major American author at least went through a New York phase." Yet, he points out that, "no one writer can be said to have encompassed the city."

Therefore, Mr. Lopate has presented us with an anthology, arranged in chronological order -- not based on the birth and death dates of the author -- but on the approximate date when the selection was written. Each selection is prefaced with an introductory paragraph about the author. The reader will find personal favorites and enlightening new voices in all forms: poetry, diaries, essays and short stories. In this comprehensive book of over a thousand pages with selections from 108 authors, favorite writers from a lifetime of reading will be enjoyed, and authors that the reader has not yet enjoyed reading will be encountered. Especially enjoyable is "The Landmarker" by Louis Auchinloss in which the protagonist, a single man still invited to the best parties, focuses his emotions on an old building he does not want to see torn down. The building is a symbol of an old and familiar way of life that he sees fading away. From this social commentary, we can then turn to James Baldwin's excerpt from his essay "The Fire Next Time" in which Baldwin forces the reader to really see with the eyes of a young and confused black man. Baldwin's furious, yet powerful prose drags us through his world like a speeding subway train.

Whether the reader only savors favorite authors or uses Writing: New York as a total literary experience by reading it cover to cover, the experience will be enjoyable. Mr. Lopate has compiled a unique anthology with a very original focus.

--Sarah Reaves White

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