William Styron’s daughter recalls her love-hate relationship with the literary lion.
The author’s reputation as a leading 20th-century American fiction writer made his homes in Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard lively gathering places for the country’s elite authors: Peter Matthiessen, Lillian Hellman, Norman Mailer and many others regularly talked, argued and drank (heavily) in his living rooms. But Alexandra Styron (All the Finest Girls, 2001) is more fixated on the brooding, mercurial man who dominated and terrified her after the parties ended. By the time Alexandra was a teenager, most of her father’s triumphs as a fiction writer were behind him (in a sweet passage, she recalls her blushing attempts to read the sex scenes in Sophie’s Choice as a tween). Her observations focus less on his books and more on his verbal abuse of her mother and siblings, his long absences fueled by alcohol or work and his bouts with depression, which led to his acclaimed book, Darkness Visible (1990), but drained the family’s emotional reserves. Perusing her father’s papers, she finds reams of failed attempts to recapture the glories of Lie Down in Darkness (1951) and The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). Interviewing his former colleagues, she discovers a writer who was emotionally fragile even at his most successful. An official biography of Styron has already been written (James L.W. West III’s William Styron: A Life, 1998), and Alexandra doesn’t feel compelled to compete with it. Sometimes that’s an asset: She can be brutally frank and intimate about her frustrations with her father, especially during his long decline before his death in 2006. But the book, expanded from a New Yorker essay, also feels somewhat centerless. The author takes long leaps back and forth across time, and her attempts to integrate her own frustrations as an aspiring actress and fiction writer feel tacked-on. In the book as in her life, she struggles to assert her own personality but ultimately plays a secondary role to her father.
A tender and tragic remembrance, though mainly of interest to the author’s most devoted fans.