A Year in Reading: Jonathan Dee

December 3, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 2 min read


coverI don’t read a lot of contemporary memoirs, family memoirs especially, for the simple reason that almost all of them are offensively bad. They lurch between poles of self-pity and self-aggrandizement and exhibit a poor sense of their authors’ own proper placement in the landscape. So the greatest and most pleasant surprise of the past year for me was a memoir called Cheerful Money, written by Tad Friend, about the high-Wasp culture in the twilight of which he was raised, and the marks it left on the author and his charismatic relatives. Its tone, generous yet clear-eyed, seems unimprovable to me. And the book’s storytelling architecture is extraordinarily sly: rather than just setting down the tale of his family’s eccentricities curdling into affliction in the roughly linear way most Fall-of-the-House-of-X-stories propose, Friend causes past and present to coexist in something like the fruitfully associative way they do in therapy – no coincidence, as therapy turns out to be one of the book’s unexpected subjects.

What could be more bravely uncommercial, in this day and age, than a book-length elegy for American noblesse oblige? Cheerful Money reminds me of the woefully neglected fiction of Peter Taylor, in that it’s about the death of an unpopular way of life, a phenomenon easy to judge in hindsight but tragically disorienting to those living through it. The fact that there is something about Friend’s subject matter – all that squandered money, all those twee nicknames — that campaigns against being taken seriously only makes his achievement that much more impressive. It’s a book that deserves to become a standard of its much-abused form.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions

is the author of five novels, most recently The Privileges (Random House, 2010). He is a Contributing Writer for The New York Times Magazine, a frequent critic for Harper's, and a former Senior Editor of The Paris Review. He teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and The New School

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.