A writer’s wickedly droll account of how she came to terms with her WASP heritage and the impossible expectations of “mother” New England.
With its “pristine town center, gleaming with historically correct colors,” Stuart’s (My First Cousin Once Removed: Money, Madness, and the Family of Robert Lowell, 1998, etc.) hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, seemed the embodiment of perfection. But as Stuart well knew, high-flying moral pretensions, hypocrisy, and an insatiable hunger for social prestige and high-priced real estate bubbled just beneath the deceptively charming surface. In this wry memoir, the author explores her relationship with her hometown and with a whole host of Concord notables, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathanial Hawthorne to Louisa May Alcott, whose fictional mother Marmee—and the perpetually miserable Alcott matriarch on whom she was based—represents everything good and bad about New England culture. A rebel who defied the WASP values of thrift, practicality and quiet snobbery, Payne fled Concord for New York after an early marriage. Yet within 10 years of leaving, her longing to return home became “obsessive.” Concord had “become a kind of utopia, where [she] would give her children the perfect childhood.” It also became a personal testing ground where she fantasized she could engage in error-free parenting while earning the approval of her own mother and father. Instead, Stuart found herself moving into larger and larger homes she and her husband could not afford and joining exclusive social clubs, all in the name of maintaining the facade of WASP success. Seeking enlightenment about her dilemmas and compulsions, the author examines her family’s personal history as well as Concord literary history. She learned that her pattern of feeling guilt and smugness on the one hand and seeing nonexistent coziness on the other were part of a heritage best survived through self-deprecating humor.
Satire at its finest.