dimanche 14 octobre 2012


The last two books I've read were memoirs written by women: Title Deeds, by Liza Campbell and Trail of Crumbs, by Kim Sunee.  I picked up the latter as I'm always game for stories written by American expats; the former to remind me that I am not alone in having grown up in a slightly psychotic household.

Both works are categorized as memoirs, but Title Deeds could be shelved under "European History" while Trial of Crumbs should be placed in the "Self-Centered Literature by Spoiled Clueless Women" section of your library. Title Deeds tells the story of Campbell's family growing up in Macbeth's castle in Scotland. Her dad is crazy; there's violence, incest and other horrible and mean acts which show up in these pages, but the story doesn't center around his wacko nature exclusively. You actually don't get to the "hook"--the fact he disinherited all his kids and left his huge estate to their evil stepmother--until the very end of the book. In other words, Title Deeds is not an instrument of vengence. Campbell writes to sort out and make sense of her mentally ill father, and in the telling she provides the reader with a thorough history lesson. It's clear that her prose was not being used to skewer her dead father or sully his name.

On the other hand, Kim Sunee's memoir is 370 pages devoted to denigrating the French (an easy target) while at the same time living in the upper echelon of their society.  She never lets you forget that she is young (23 or so when the story begins) and far more nubile than the French women around her. There is not one description of any French woman she meets which does not include "bitter," "face etched by anger," "dangling heavy breasts" (at a nude camping site), or "old, wrinkled, veiny hands." Sunee's currency is her youth and exotic beauty (she's a Korean-American) and she sleeps her way across her ten years as an expatriate, the majority of those years spent as Olivier Baussan's--the founder of that lovely soap store L'Occitane, as well as the olive oil company Olivier & Co--much-younger mistress.

This is the tricky part about writing a memoir. You can't write about your life without writing about others' lives. In Campbell's case, the other was dead, so he couldn't have his say had she written anything extemely defamatory (which she doesn't, plus her "other" was insane so he gets a pass on his behavior). Sunee's tale treats the living and the sane, however, and she does not seem to be mindful of the "others". Adding to the complexity is the issue of being a famous figure's lover and the damage she could do to him and his company's image in this quite public forum. (Indeed, I now hesitate to purchase anything at L'Occitane after learning about Baussan's private life and lovemaking techniques.) And this is where Trail of Crumbs comes off more as an act of spite rather than a search for self. It is clear that the writer hated the French and in particular French men, all of whom are described as scheming philanderers (yet she never said no to the apartments or bookstore Baussan bought for her, or the high-end vacations and the designer clothing). It's a shame that the book turned out to be a platform for her to tell the world what she thought of Baussan, because she really could have done something terrific with her source material...something Peter Mayle-esque, for example. There are some false starts, where she begins to describe the beauty of their domaine in the Luberon, but it quickly reverts to her sitting by the pool in her Missoni bathing suit and feeling lonely despite the charmed life she's earned by virtue of her good looks and bedroom skills.

All memoirs are going to implicate others--you can neither live nor write in a vacuum. If I were to write a memoir (which I wouldn't, unless you count my blog), I'd hope to leave something as tasteful as possible. Campbell does this very well and the reader closes the book with respect and admiration for her circumstances. Sunee, though, comes off as a petulant child, forever sending back the dessert she is served, hoping for a better piece of the pie.

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