A conceptually ambitious and assured debut, successfully bridging memoir and literary criticism.
Smyth, an American, first read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse when she was studying abroad at Oxford. She had been raised by her British father and Australian mother in their adopted New England, where the author harbored fantasies about their courtship and their charmed relationship. Smyth also had easy access to the sea, for which she felt an affinity that was reinforced by her favorite novel. As her parents’ marriage all but collapsed, complications challenged everything she once felt about life, and her life in particular, and she found refuge and resonance in Woolf’s famously challenging novel. Smyth, who has taught at Columbia and worked for the Paris Review, offers a close reading of that novel from the perspective of an obsessed reader who is both coming-of-age and coming to terms. Smyth’s memoir also serves as a biography of Woolf, particularly about the disappointments and epiphanies that the two share and that Woolf translated into her fiction. Most of all, the book is Smyth’s story of living with an alcoholic father through his protracted death, as he defied warnings that continuing to drink and smoke would kill him and then defied that predicted fate until he no longer could, at which point his death took everyone by surprise. The author writes of the vicious cycle perpetuated by her alcoholic father and clinically depressed mother, each blaming the other, becoming both more estranged and more inextricably bound together. She also writes of how she and her mother have grieved differently and how she may not be feeling what she should—whatever that is. Ultimately, she wonders whether any of this means anything: “Have I come up with anything, has Woolf come up with anything, that is more than merely circling a brutal truth?”
A work of incisive observation and analysis, exquisite writing, and an attempt to determine if there is “any revelation that could lessen loss, that could help to make the fact of death okay.”