A Texas oilman’s daughter comes of age in the 1950s and ’60s while traveling the globe as part of an expatriate community.
Jensen’s debut memoir (Anatomy of an Infidelity, 2012, etc.) portrays a young woman’s literary and sexual awakening while including fascinating details about the rise of international oil refineries. Jensen draws on recollection and research to evoke the cloistral glamour of the expat world while depicting her family, including her ambitious, volatile father; her gentle, alcoholic mother; and her two older siblings, whose social grace underscores the narrator’s lack of ease. The book opens with her father’s decision to return his family to the United States from Venezuela in the 1950s; they move from Venezuela to Aruba to Spain to Pakistan to Thailand before finally returning to Texas. The author’s portraits are too cursory to rise to the level of great characters, but she includes riveting details of time and place, particularly when she juxtaposes the intimate and the cultural: Fourteen-year-old girls in Aruba steal cigarettes and Piper-Heidsieck champagne and swap stories of sexual initiation before news comes of President Kennedy’s assassination; college kids light up a joint in an Austin, Texas, bar and debate pot’s legalization as protesters are gunned down at Kent State University. Unfortunately, the memoir’s lack of focus undercuts its strengths. The book covers 17 years, from childhood to college, and all incidents receive equal attention, diluting the power of crucial events, such as Jensen’s aesthetic education; her friendship with Anne, whose expat home is a doily-and-china shrine to Queen Elizabeth II; Jensen’s sexual awakening at 15 with a 30-year-old engineer; and the untimely death of her friend John. At times, the memoir recalls Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club (1995) with its stories of hard-drinking eccentrics and thwarted ambitions. Ultimately, however, this memoir’s emphasis on summary makes it more a catalog of anecdotes than a rich, revealing story.
A promising but uneven portrait of growing up in the expatriate world.