Monday, October 11, 2010

Oh The Glory Of It All: Parents Just Don't Understand

Near the end of Sean Wilsey's hilarious, engrossing coming-of-age memoir, Oh The Glory Of It All, he explains that "A memoir, at its heart, is written in order to figure out who you are." But there are other reasons, too — like outing your evil stepmother as a gold-digging, morally barren ho-bag; like creating a tribute to your dead father, who wasn't always your biggest fan; and like illustrating how different rich people are than we normals.

Rich people are interesting. Crazy people are interesting. And rich, crazy people, like Sean's parents and step-mother, are absolutely fascinating! It all starts with the divorce. Sean's mother and father are the prototypical rich, San Francisco socialites. And their split and the almost immediate re-marriage of his father to another San Francisco socialite, Dede, send shockwaves both through San Francisco society and Sean's delicate rich-kid life. (Random note: Dede's ex-husband then married Danielle Steele, who previously had been having an affair with Sean's dad.)

Sean's childhood and adolescence becomes a mess of under-parenting and over-schooling — he goes through three high schools, literally escaping from the third one, which is a cult-like, brainwashing place called Cascade. His father disowns him, his mother is furious, and Sean's on his own.

Sean's complicated relationship with his parents is the underlying theme of the memoir. His mother wavers back and forth with a strange version of love, and totally using Sean to advance her own agenda. His horrible stepmother Dede never misses any opportunity to flat-out tell Sean what a screw-up he is, and what a disappointment he is to his father. But nevertheless, through all his misbehaving, and despite the fact that his father wants nothing to do with him (Dede's influence!), he still desperately seeks his father's approval.

What's most interesting about the book is about how Sean changes in the reader's eyes several times throughout the memoir. He starts off as a "character" for whom readers have this incredible sympathy because of his horrible parents. At one point, his mother suggests that she and Sean kill themselves together, ostensibly to avenge the divorce! But then he becomes your typical rich kid brat — he's cruel to his boarding-schoolmates, he has no concept of consequences, and he does things for no other reason than to be a jerk, like throwing fruit at cars off the balcony of his mother's 30th floor penthouse. It's not until an arrest and a deal to attend a school in Italy that he finally has the experiences necessary for him to mature, and finally graduate high school at age 20. Then, throughout the last third of the book, we're squarely on his side as he battles Dede and grows into manhood.

This book came out more than five years ago and has been on my shelf most of that time, but it recently showed up on Jonathan Franzen's list of "Four Overlooked Books," so I finally took it down. I loved it! It's absurd at times (Sean is SURE he's going to lose his virginity to his step-mother Dede. But that's before he's SURE he hates her more than any other human in the world.) It's hilarious in a sarcastic, smart, but also understated way. (Sean relates how angry his mother was when she lost to Elie Wiesel for the Nobel Peace Price — "When it was announced that Wiesel had won, Mom, crushed, threw the pyramid (a glass desk ornament) into a mirror." I literally laughed out loud after reading that scene.) And it's even often sad and affecting, especially near the end as Sean relates his father's death. It's a long book, but definitely worth a read. (And you can get it on Amazon for $6 right now!)


  1. This one sounds like so much fun. I'm a big fan of memoirs when written by the slightly odd or eccentric.

  2. I love memoirs, no matter whether they are written by stars or not. I do prefer they tell the truth, but other than that, I'm always game. So this is Franzen-recommended? Hmmm. Just like true crime and graphic novels, I think I could do a whole year of stuff like this.

  3. I wonder if this book will see a resurgence now? It does sound really good!

  4. This sounds ridiculous, absurd, and fabulous! I love memoirs, and this one really sounds like it takes the cake. I love it when a character manages to change in my eyes several times throughout the book - how is it that I'd never even heard of this before?

  5. I am totally sold! I'm adding it to the list. Yet another awesome review, thanks Greg!

  6. @Trisha - It WAS a lot of fun, except when it was really sad and shocking that parents could be so cruel to their son! Worth a read for sure...

    @Sandy - Yeah, how true a memoir really is always is an open question, right? Here, Sean definitely had an axe to grind, and because he recreates whole conversations, there's no doubt he made up some of the dialogue. The whole thing reads like a novel. Also, I read somewhere that his stepmother Dede sued to keep him from publishing all those nasty things about her, so maybe there was a touch of exaggeration.

    @bibliophiliac - I hope it does see a resurgence. Actually, I hope Wilsey publishes something new - maybe some fiction!

    @brizmus - Absurd is a great way to describe it. It's hard to wrap your mind around some of the things he describes! And yes, it's a testament to Wilsey's writerly skill that he's able to so carefully manage your perception of him throughout the book. He knows exactly what he wants his reader to think - and it totally works!

    @Kathmeista - Thanks, Kath! Hope you enjoy it!