All is not as it seems. That’s a good rule in life—and especially in family histories, the subject of this elegant memoir.
The daughter of New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly and Maus creator Art Spiegelman grew up surrounded by smart people and bright talk, always with the knowledge that mom was a touch eccentric. Her account opens with an episode involving a lightning storm over a choppy ocean, a risk taken seriously, Mouly believed, “by timid women who washed their vegetables”—and that her relatives across the water in France might be a touch dottier still. That wasn’t the half of it. As Spiegelman recounts, it took a residence abroad in Paris and frequent exposure to her grandparents to understand just why it was that her mother might have wanted to put an ocean between them. Of her plastic-surgeon grandfather, her mother protested, “you don’t understand. He’s just used to touching women.” There’s more to it than all that, providing some of the book’s darker moments, which are alleviated by grand-mère’s antics, even if that sturdy elder demanded that she be called Josée, as if to magically ward off the suspicion that the decades had passed. “My grandmother was beautiful long after she was beautiful,” Spiegelman writes, getting it just right. “She carried herself and dressed herself in a way that left no question.” The oddness of mother runs to grandmother and on into the past, as Spiegelman explores decades of memory with knowing nods: “Mina slapped Josée often. Which is not to say she was an abused child, she added quickly.” In the end, readers may be left with a sense of gratitude that his or her family is comparatively normal, which is not to say that these folks are terrible—odd, sure, but muddling through, with a sometimes-rueful but empathetic descendant recalling episodes they might well want to forget.
A fascinating, gracefully written glimpse into the complexities of family life, full of secrets, hidden wounds, and survival tips.