Keith Staskiewicz
April 07, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Reading My Father

Current Status
In Season
Alexandra Styron

We gave it an A-

William Styron was a devotee of the Novel, with a capital N — penning grand, expressive monuments to the human condition like The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice. But the rest of the Styron family — his wife, Rose, and four children — languished in the shadows of these hardbound monoliths, fearful of his alcohol abuse and debilitating depression and rarely rewarded by his attention.

In Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron is less concerned with airing her familial grievances than trying to track down and pinpoint the man behind the myth. Poring over archived correspondence and unpublished manuscripts, she learns more about the figure who towered over her early life than she ever knew before, as well as the depths of his many contradictions. He was alternately ”hypersensitive, aloof, unexamined, not to mention hypochondriacal, agnostic, and alcoholic. Intellectual, passionate, and infantile.” She draws subtle comparisons to other giants of her father’s literary fraternity — pugnacious, capricious, and sometimes cruel men like Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller — to outline the question at the heart of her reflection: Is his art enough of an excuse?

The memoir’s eloquent prose and fluid structure suggest his talent may be hereditary, but the most telling lines of the book come after a visit with her father’s friend and fellow author Peter Matthiessen, who insists ”a real writer” can be forgiven his failures: ”It was time to get back to the city,” she writes. ”My children were waiting for me.” A?

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