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'Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor' by Tad Friend

BOOK REVIEW

A New Yorker's funny, poignant tribute to his wacky family and to a vanishing demographic.

October 14, 2009|Tim Rutten

The author reveals that even his own father -- whose emotional life seems to have been lived somewhere out beyond the orbit of Pluto -- criticized his son's writing for its lack of emotional engagement. Self-deprecation, as Friend points out, is a cardinal WASP virtue.

But there are moments of controlled but genuine pathos in the author's descriptions of his relationship with his wife, food writer Amanda Hesser, and their two children -- and a reconciliation through mutual recognition with his father that's genuinely touching.

Still, "Cheerful Money" is a kind of ghost story, an evocation of a vanished world and a people, once dominant, now faded into demographic insignificance. Less than 5% of all Americans today claim English descent. As Friend points out, assimilation turned out to be something the WASPs weren't good at, and the author is at exquisite pains to distance himself from his relations' habitual anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism.

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Aesthetic lingers

WASP culture -- with its dogs, shingled houses at the shore, pearls and sweating silver cocktail shakers -- survives today as a kind of marketing tool, a commercially viable stylish nostalgia. Amusingly, its leading practitioners are a Polish Catholic woman, Martha Stewart -- who evokes the relaxed but well-groomed domestic style of the Hamptons and Nantucket -- and Ralph Lauren, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants named Lifshitz.

Actually, in dress at least, the style Lauren so artfully markets is more properly called "preppy," and with his keen eye for the distinctions in the details, Friend delineates that as being merely a WASP subset: "preppies are infantile and optimistic, forever stuck at age 17; Wasps emerge from the womb wrinkly and cautious, already vice presidents, already fifty-two."

As Friend's hockey player cousin Donny -- who "shockingly" failed to gain admission to Yale -- once said as they strolled by the Ralph Lauren window on Madison Avenue: "If Ralph really wants to get to the heart of Waspdom, he should do a whole window full of beakers of lithium and patients in white gowns."

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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