Novelist Vandenburgh (The Physics of Sunset, 1999, etc.) writes lyrically about her chaotic life.
The author has mined this material before: Her acclaimed first novel, Failure to Zigzag (1989), featured a teenage narrator with a mentally disturbed mother and a father who committed suicide—all drawn, we see here, from Vandenburgh’s difficult early years in California. Her depressed and troubled father, with whom she was very close, was repeatedly arrested in gay bars. He committed suicide by throwing himself off the roof of his office building in 1958, when she was just nine years old. Her mother, a freethinking artist, quickly spiraled downward into insanity, and was committed to a mental hospital. Vandenburgh and her two brothers were taken to live with an aunt and uncle who already had four kids of their own. The first half of the book, which recalls this lonely and troubled childhood, is exquisitely written and awash with poignant, moving details, like her description of how she left down the lid of her record-player after her mother was committed so that it would keep trapped forever the air her mother had breathed. Vandenburgh also does a wonderful job of documenting her teenage sexual awakening—hence the memoir’s title—and deftly captures the era: “Drugs haven’t happened yet, but you can feel them on the edge of things, waiting like the crisp paper wrapper on a noisy present.” The second half, which jumps ahead to adulthood, doesn’t quite match the tour-de-force of her childhood memories, but the whole is nonetheless striking and insightful.
Effectively employing the author’s fiction-writing talents to tell her life story, this memoir will likely cause readers to seek out her novels.