Life with father isn’t always the stuff of greeting cards.
As Firstman’s (Writing/Coll. of the Sequoias and California State Univ., Fresno) memoir opens, we find her scientist father dying, but not so quickly that he doesn’t have time to request a shipment of references books, DVDs, posters, and so forth. Having established that her father is a man of parts and letters, the author slowly reveals a more nuanced, less sympathetic, and certainly more compromised figure than the eccentric, bookish fellow we first encounter. He effectively abandoned her in childhood, she writes, but not out of intentional cruelty; chalk it up to Asperger’s, perhaps, or to the fact that “he just wasn’t all that interested in fatherhood.” But he was interested in whether she had any desire to appear nude in Playboy. “I think I understood that if I answered ‘yes,’ ” she writes, “ 'I would be making promises I wasn’t ready to make and I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep.' ” That she was 6 or 7 at the time of the question makes it all the creepier, but having unveiled the very fact that he asked it, the author tucks it away again, saying only that it taught her to “withhold the answer an adult, any adult, expected of me.” A touch more anger, if not at the white-hot level of, say, Carobeth Laird’s Encounter with an Angry God, would not be out of place, but Firstman writes with cool evenhandedness of her father’s many accomplishments and shortcomings, some of which can indeed be attributed to the spectrum, some to a dynamic of codependence: “I recognize the literary injustice here,” she writes of her mother, “how the absent parent—my father—gets the most page time.” In the end, the book, with its ironic title, will leave most readers glad that their families are normal, at least by comparison.
A saddening but ultimately redeeming memoir that, though well-paced and well-told, is of limited appeal.