We live in the Age of Spilled Beans. And literature now spills them as dutifully as gossip columnists and supermarket tabloids. Literary biographers tell us more than we want to know about our favorite authors, and so do our favorite authors. The result is a new directness, a new honesty, a new voyeurism.
Treetops is companion to Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever’s moving and excruciating 1985 memoir about her famous father, John Cheever, in which she let loose the demons lurking behind his graceful, elegiac prose — his acute alcoholism, furtive homosexuality, stalemated marriage. The book worked as a tribute to his divided, occluded spirit. Its successor is meant as a tribute to her mother, Mary Winternitz Cheever, ”one of a lost generation of women” who sacrificed their aspirations to their husbands’ careers, and to her mother’s family, who are brought into focus at their serene New Hampshire summer retreat, Treetops. But it’s spooked by the ghost of John Cheever, especially his habit of using his family as a quarry for his writing, a habit inherited, with more sincerity and less art, by his daughter.
In ”An Educated American Woman,” John Cheever told the story of a suburban woman who leaves her ailing son alone to attend a highway commission meeting. Her husband returns home to find him dying. It was written just after Mary Cheever defied her husband by taking a teaching job. Her mother, Susan Cheever tells us, has never quite gotten over that story, and her two brothers are even more resentful. She describes her own mortification when, at age 9, she read a story of her father’s about a ski trip much like one she had taken with her family, during which a little girl much like herself is dragged to her death by a ski lift.
John Cheever pronounced a curse on people who professed to recognize themselves or others in his fiction: ”You are reducing literature to gossip.” Susan Cheever, a novelist herself, seems to endorse this verdict even as she invites it. To her credit, she is candidly baffled about being at both ends of the quandary. In any case, this belabored distraction doesn’t affect the first half of the book, when she is talking about two illustrious ancestors: her great-grandfather, Tom Watson, a plain-living, curious, slightly mystical New England archetype who helped Bell invent the telephone; and her grandfather, Milton Winternitz, a fierce Jewish doctor who married Watson’s daughter Helen, built Treetops, ruled it with an iron hand, built up the Yale medical school, ruled it with the same iron hand, and, after Helen’s death, married into the aristocratic Whitney clan. Susan’s prose has none of her father’s evocative lyricism, but the family legends, festivities, and feuds are served up beguilingly enough in her unpretentious, anecdotal, wandering style.
The problem is in the second, parent-dominated half of the book. If Susan Cheever manages to convey Mary Cheever’s winsome, elusive personality — her ”sexy, stunned out-of-it-ness” — she also tends to reduce her mother’s life to gossip. And she does so without the excuse she had when she was writing about her father (he was a public figure, and dead) or her father’s excuse (he was writing about his family in the transforming medium of fiction). When she gives a detailed account of the affair her widowed mother had with a wealthy lawyer, she’s not paying tribute to her, but to the privacy-hating spirit of our age.