The "first cousin" of this compelling, disconcertingly funny memoir is Robert Lowell--scion of two old New England families (the Winslows, his mother's side, go back even further than the Lowells), widely considered America's greatest poet during the 1960s, anti-Vietnam war activist, and incurable manic depressive. Lowell has been biographied before, notably by Ian Hamilton and Paul Mariani, but no other "life study" contains a particle of the intimacy, fondness, dismay, and above all humor that Sarah Payne Stuart brings to the subject. Stuart places "Bobby" in a loose-knit Winslow family tapestry, and reveals the back of the tapestry: the droll stories about Lowell's icy, chic mother and eccentric, rich Aunt Sarah, who disinherited him when he fathered a child out of wedlock; the excruciating holidays and bizarre Brahmin rituals; the family's mix of provincial pride and bruising disdain for their famous relation, "the king of conflicts."
As fresh and smart as the Lowell material is, the book really catches fire when Stuart tells her own immediate family's story: the two-year breakdown her beautiful mother suffered after giving birth to a daughter; the manic depression that nearly destroyed her brilliant brother, Johnny; the bad luck, blindness, and sheer selfishness that kept her branch perpetually strapped. Stuart has a satirist's eye, a standup comic's sense of timing, and fabulous material. And in My First Cousin Once Removed she makes the most of all of them. --David Laskin
From Publishers Weekly
There is undeniable charm in a memoirist who is aware of his or her own failings and can render them plainly. This is the case with Stuart, who admittedly doesn't much "get" the poetry of her mother's famous first cousinAand doesn't much care to. That this anti-intellectualism is more the rule than the exception in her family becomes clear as Stuart details generations of Lowells, Paynes and WinslowsAmany of whom emerge much more clearly here than in Lowell's poems or in previous portraits of the artist. The moneyed Uncle Cot and matriarchal Aunt Sarah, Lowell's grandfather Arthur Winslow ("He was my father," Lowell wrote of him), Grandmother "Gaga" and Uncle Devereux are all clearly and dispassionately drawn, and add to the reading of poems in which they appear. Lowell himself moves through the story as one whose doings are much discussed by the family, and Stuart wryly analyzes what the family thought of, say, his Pulitzer Prize for his first book at age 30, or his front-page letter to the New York Times declining an invitation to the Johnson White House in protest of the Vietnam War. But the main protagonist hereAaside from the family obsession with money and standingAis the manic depression that seems to run through the family, claiming, among others, Lowell and Stuart's mother and brothers, whose trials dominate the last third of the book. Still, it is Stuart's own voice that makes this book so appealing. Whether sympathetically skewering her kin, dissecting her own inheritance or digressing within a beloved anecdote, she is unfailingly forthright and clear-eyed. (Oct.) second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, whose Sight-Readings (Forecasts, May 25) appeared this July.
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