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"I wanted to kill him with a brick"
on April 29, 2008
I first read this book when it originally came out. I was in high school and like many teenagers I was prepared to see parents as the source of most teenage troubles. After reading this book, I promptly wrote my parents a nice letter about what swell people they were. I was that grateful not to have had Brooks and Barbara Baekeland for parents.
This is the rare book that proved even better than I remembered when I reread it last month. It starts with the murder of Barbara Baekeland by her son then goes back in time to beginnings of the Baekeland fortune through the passionate but ill-fated marriage of Brooks and Barbara until it catches up with the murder and the sad denouement of Tony's life. As one reviewer here has noted, this is not a traditional narrative but an oral history. The transcripts of interviews are presented without comment - very much like Jean Stein's great Edie and Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil - and the speakers reveal far more about themselves than any narrative could.
If there is a villain in this story, for me it wasn't Tony Baekeland, who clearly suffered from serious mental illness but his father Brooks Baekeland. Rarely have I come across a character in fiction or nonfiction who made me want to slap him so hard or so often. Early on one former friend of the Baekelands' talks about wanting to kill Brooks in the street with a brick. By the end of the book you may, like me, find this to be a perfectly reasonable response because Brooks is a piece of work. In fact, he's a complete jerk. If I'd been Tony's lawyer I'd have used the fact that Tony had the opportunity to kill his father yet didn't as Exhibit A in the fact that Tony was insane. Whether he's yammering on about how much he was like his brilliant grandfather, complaining about the fact that Tony couldn't stick with anything (this from a writer who only managed to write one short story and didn't finish his PhD!) or basically abandoning Tony after he's released from Broadmoor, Brooks Baekeland is a loathsome individual. His blatant homophobia and sheer lack of compassion will take your breath away. Other characters come across as clueless or careless but Brooks is downright diabolical in his self-absorption.
As an evocation of a time, a certain type of ultra-privileged couple (the sort with artistic pretensions but little talent or commitment) and a mind boggling selfishness, Savage Grace is a book to read and reread. It's suited for True Crime and biography fans. As noted, if you don't like oral histories you probably won't like it - there is very little narrative holding the interviews together. When the author wants to describe Riker's Island, she presents her description as an interview, for example. If you enjoy hearing the story from the mouths of those who lived it, Savage Grace is a book you won't soon forget.