VERTIGO by Louise DeSalvo


A Memoir
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 A biographer and literary critic's memoir of growing up in Hoboken, N.J., in a claustrophobic Italian-American family. DeSalvo (English/Hunter College; Conceived with Malice, 1994, etc.) was the first member of her working-class family to graduate from college. She escaped a stultifying home life--depressed and agoraphobic mother, belligerent and rigid father--through books, movies, study, and boys, boys, boys. She became a Virginia Woolf scholar, writing in her controversial 1989 study about the impact of childhood sexual abuse on Woolf's work. The effort to come to grips with the lingering mental strain caused by her mother's death, her sister's suicide, her memory of childhood traumas of her own--plus the intense, consuming life of an academic writer- -eventually compelled her to write about her own life in an effort to ``to give it some shape, some order.'' The result is an extremely readable book--if not necessarily a lovable one. DeSalvo's prose is plain; her tone often cool. We gain insight into her life and her mother's life--but not her dead sister's. New Jersey of the 1950s is vividly evoked, but DeSalvo's present situation as teacher, wife, and mother is less vivid. Among the book's best elements: a list of her mother's punitive and pathetic attempts at cooking--from liver, heart, and snails to head cheese, eels, and octupus. Vertigo's main failing is a lack of continuity; there is a grab-bag feeling to some of the reminiscences, and sometimes topics are misleadingly highlighted--a chapter called ``Anorexia,'' for example, is not about the anorexia of the author or anyone close to her, but rather about anorexia in general, and the effect is that of DeSalvo's trying to touch all possible feminist bases. Strangely cool, ultimately more successful as cultural history than psychological memoir, DeSalvo's book is nevertheless gripping in its parade of detail and profusion of stories about how ``a working-class Italian girl became a critic and writer.'' (Author tour)

Pub Date: Aug. 21st, 1996
ISBN: 0-525-93908-3
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Dutton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1996


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