I’m not very happy with myself. I just gulped down Why Not Say What Happened with unseemly haste and for all the wrong reasons. Ghoulishness, schadenfreude, voyeurism — that about covers it. Not a pretty cocktail. But oh, while we’re talking about cocktails, what oceans of booze keep this book afloat! Vodka, beer, caipirinhas, Chateau Margaux, whisky and a very great deal of champagne; but Ivana Lowell regrets a lot of it.
Why Not Say What Happened, naturally, is a follow-up to Caroline Blackwood’s Great Granny Webster. The latter is obviously somewhat autobiographical and Ivana Lowell, Blackwood’s daughter, clears up some of the confusion about which loony ancestor behaved in which horrifying fashion. She also describes Blackwood’s own highly erratic parenting skills. Fine. We’d expect as much. But somehow the book never really lifts off into something besides a list of people, places, drinks, and misbehavior. True, the latter is dreadful and certainly Ivana must have been very damaged by her childhood which included sexual abuse and a terrible accident with boiling water. Not to mention some very mixed messages about her fatherhood — though the poet Robert Lowell, her mother’s third husband, adopted her, other candidates for paternity rather crowd the book. The narrative is structured so that this question nominally provides the suspense, but I wasn’t all that interested.
The central problem is Lowell’s vacancy as a narrator. She tells you lots of things that could be fascinating or tragic or amusing, but her matter-of-fact delivery leaches out the drama. Perhaps it’s a deliberate choice: some of this stuff almost has to be told flatly, or else it would blow the top of your head off. But even the supposedly funny bits lack humor. Lowell keeps repeating her mother’s refrain for when the two of them got into dreadful scrapes: “Honestly, it’s too bad, even for us!” Hmmm — “even for us.” Exceptional “us?” Narcisisstic “us?” You decide.
And finally, I know it’s really hard to avoid in this kind of gruesome-childhood memoir, but Lowell sometimes falls into the self-pity trap. (A trap avoided by Wendy Burden’s Dead End Gene Pool, which is comparable for grandeur and dysfunction, but far more entertaining.) For instance, there’s the story about when she was at the Oscars with her boyfriend Bob Weinstein, and he yelled at her because her John Galliano dress looked ugly, and he had the maids at the Peninsula Hotel trim the hem… Huh? This is a problem?
A friend has recommended Nancy Schoenberger’s Dangerous Muse, a biography of Caroline Blackwood, but I may be done with these women.