Today, Great New Books team member Lindsey Mead shares one of her favorite recent reads, and we are giving away one copy of PERFECTLY MISERABLE: GUILT, GOD AND REAL ESTATE IN A SMALL TOWN by Sarah Payne Stuart to one lucky reader, thanks to Sarah’s publisher, Riverhead (see details below).
Perfectly Miserable by Sarah Payne Stuart
Sarah Payne Stuart’s memoir, PERFECTLY MISERABLE, is a hilarious and deeply touching story about mothers and daughters, history and the present day, reading and real life. It is also about Concord, Massachusetts, a town a few miles from where I was born, grew up, and live now.
As a fellow New Englander by birth, I related very much to Stuart’s depiction of families with Puritan roots. “On the bright side of Protestant self-loathing is the industry it provokes,” she says, and I can’t help but think of my increasing awareness of my own intense privileging of hard work. If something’s not hard, it’s not worth it, or so goes the refrain in my head. Over and over again, I laughed out loud at a detail that rang uncomfortably true from my own childhood: her mother’s fierce belief in the value of a clean sink, the pillowcase full of sterling silver, and the Minute Rice.
In the first chapter of the book, Stuart conflates her mother with her God and establishes the books’ central theme: maternal approval. She explores this in both her own life and in the lives of some of Concord’s celebrated writers, especially Louisa May Alcott. The spirit of Marmee, Alcott’s real-life mother, looms large over PERFECTLY MISERABLE. Stuart illuminates the gulf between the myth of the Alcott family, built around Little Women, and the much-less-cozy reality. I had no idea how far from the bucolic family I imagined the truth of life with Bronson Alcott as a father was. In this way, Stuart references another of the tenets of PERFECTLY MISERABLE, and of WASP life itself: outsides and insides very often do not match. Stuart shares Louisa May Alcott a life-long, defining desire to secure her mother’s approval and love. One of the most poignant moments of the book occurs at its very end, when Stuart’s mother heads into a risky surgery. Suddenly Stuart realizes,
For, as I was beginning to realize, I had always possessed what I had so desperately been seeking. I had only to look around my parents’ apartment and see all the pictures of her and me, arms entwined, to understand, too late, that my mother had loved me as I had loved her, that she had been as afraid of my disapproval as I had been of hers.
Concord itself features as a character in PERFECTLY MISERABLE, in all of its power and history. Stuart discusses not only Alcott but Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, and she traces the changes in the town’s socioeconomic make-up and prevailing culture over the decades. Reflecting on the childhood of her sons and daughter, and on her own, Stuart identifies “the impossible premise that a Concord youth imparts: that all will be happy in the end.”
This premise lives in the history of Concord’s writers, in the myriad and murky family lives they each lived, and in the town’s houses. Stuart tells us about her own predilection towards moving, her belief that “to move is a new beginning, the surprise of hope, the sudden remembrance of anticipation, the race of sluggish blood …” The book’s subtitle refers to real estate and each chapter is headed with a photograph of a house in Concord, which grounds us in the town and in the homes in which the narrative unfolds.
Stuart’s story, both hilarious and wistful, is a tale of motherhood as well as daughterhood. I learned a lot about the history of Concord and of its’ writers, but my favorite aspect of PERFECTLY MISERABLE were the book’s insights on the particular peculiarities and joys of the Puritan New England family and Stuart’s deeply-felt musings on the power of the mother-daughter relationship.
To enter the drawing to win a copy of PERFECTLY MISERABLE by Sarah Payne Stuart, enter through the form below from Wednesday, June 18 until Friday, June 20 at midnight Eastern time.
Great New Books will email the winner and announce it here on Monday, June 23. (Entries for the Continental US only, please.) As always, thanks for helping us to spread the word about great books and thank you for joining us!
Have you read Perfectly Miserable? We’d love to hear what you think — please share in the comments below. Thanks!