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'Gilded Youth'; 'Lies My Mother Never Told Me'

August 16, 2009|Susan Salter Reynolds

Gilded Youth

Three Lives in France's Belle Epoque

Kate Cambor

Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 307 pp., $25

The phrase fin-de-siecle, in any century, has an ominous feel. We search for clues that point to our imminent and certain demise. In this dramatic, real-life tale of three intertwined lives, Kate Cambor conveys the dashed hopes not just of families and individuals, but of an entire culture. Jean-Baptiste Charcot, the son of famed neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (mentor to Sigmund Freud); Leon Daudet, the son of the writer Alphonse Daudet (whose closest friends included Flaubert, Zola, Goncourt and Tolstoy); and Jeanne Hugo, the granddaughter of the writer Victor Hugo were the celebrity brats of France's Belle Epoque. None of the three friends had shoulders quite broad enough to carry the legacies of their forebears.

What Cambor calls the "frenetic exuberance" of the late 1800s in Paris -- in science, art and literature -- had collapsed by the time these three were ready to make their mark in the first decades of the 20th century. Revolutions in all three fields made the ground under their feet even more unsteady, not to mention all the complicated family dynamics and resulting vulnerabilities. "Gilded Youth" is full of glittering things -- ideas, salons, dreams -- ultimately blinding to the three young people. Paris burns brightly in the background.

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Lies My Mother

Never Told Me

A Memoir

Kaylie Jones

William Morrow: 372 pp., $25.99

"Don't become a writer," Nelson Algren advised Kaylie Jones a few years after her beloved father, the writer James Jones ("From Here to Eternity," "The Thin Red Line"), died in 1977. "It's a lousy, stupid thing to do. You start out thinking people are going to admire you and love you and respect you but . . . [i]t's a terrible life." This brand of alcohol-induced bitterness saturates "Lies My Mother Never Told Me" -- James Jones died of heart problems exacerbated by excessive drinking, Jones' mother was a cruel drunk, Jones herself struggled with alcoholism.

Born in Paris in 1960, the author grew up in France and Long Island. Like the children in "Gilded Youth," she was saddled with an emotional legacy that mired her in guilt and self-doubt for years. Seen in this light, the writers and celebrities that surrounded her parents seem like an unappealing bunch. There are one too many drunken shouting matches; like small children, we shut down and hum a little tune to ourselves to drown it all out.

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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