Monday, January 24, 2011

Glamour drowns insight in "Why Not Say What Happened?"

The world of the have-a-lots is intrinsically appealing to outsiders and insiders. Glamour and power bounce from the gilded facades of the rich, famous and infamous, and we might just catch a ray; a secondary glow seems better than none. We can’t help at least glancing through the tabloids to read about the latest scandal and to get a glimpse of someone’s tumble or rise. Ivana Lowell’s memoir “Why Not Say What Happened?” plays directly into our eager appetites for the lavish and sensational. A descendant of the wealthy Guinness family, she is also the stepdaughter of the American poet Robert Lowell. The lure for the reader is both the wealth and the brilliance of the players.

The memoir opens with the death of the author’s mother, Lady Caroline Blackwood, wife of Lucien Freud and Robert Lowell. Whisked away from mourning in order to lunch with a friend of Caroline’s, Lowell finds herself forced to question her paternity. Her dining partner suggests, coyly, that by now Lowell knows that she has a different father than her sisters. Lowell is startled and this quandary is meant to be a driving force behind the book. But Israel Citkowitz, who Lowell believed to be her father for thirty odd years, died when she was a child, and her most vivid memories of a father figure are of Robert Lowell himself, who chronologically cannot be her father. Because Lowell's sense of paternity is already benignly disjointed one wonders if the mystery needs to be solved.

Lowell speeds through her narrative by illustrating anecdotes of splendid wealth, whimsical indulgences, and a veritable menagerie of names worth mentioning. Her grandmother Maureen is portrayed as something of a tyrannical social climber, and her mother's moods sway in tandem with her inebriation. Maureen touts the queen mother as among her closest friends, and is only saved from the “family problem” of alcoholism by fatally embarrassing herself in front of the royals and swearing off liquor. Neither Lowell nor her mother escape so easily.

The second thread of the memoir is the author’s struggle with alcohol. Lowell tells us that she has gone to rehab many times, occupying those of both a sparse and luxurious nature. She trots through them at unspecified points in her life and mentions them so lightly it is difficult to discern if she takes them seriously. It is even harder to know if she’s close to conquering her alcoholism or interested in doing so, and your heart goes out to her daughter Daisy, who is a glimmering apparition of hope in her mother’s narrative.

For all of the glamorous hullabaloo Lowell kicks up, there is very little revealed about the depth of either her or her mother’s struggle with alcohol; nor are any of the author’s relationships delineated with concrete particulars or insight. I understand the delicacy of family and the sacred nature of its history. Bringing the public into family secrets is a tricky business. But if you are going to write about it, you have to peel back all the layers. Otherwise the result is not worth even a modicum of the discomfort it will inevitably cause.

Robert Lowell is little more than a benevolent, phantom presence in the narrative and it is disappointing to find his complexities so easily dismissed. The major matriarchal figures in Ivana Lowell’s life are described with an awareness of their venom but without any real exploration of their truths or the consequences. Perhaps this stems from a reluctance to accuse or, merely, to find fault, but Lowell’s inability to truly examine her predecessors makes it impossible for her to incorporate their lessons into her understanding of herself. As a result, not even the reader learns anything of note.

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