Speaking with Strangers

Mary Cantwell, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $23 (142p) ISBN 978-0-395-82751-2
After chronicling her coming-of-age in American Girl, then her marriage and the birth of her two daughters in Manhattan When I Was Young, Cantwell concludes her trilogy of memoirs with this dark and unsparing account of the years following her divorce. As are her previous books, it's a curious blend of reticence and tell-all. Still bitter over her father's death, which she views as an abandonment of her, she obsessively assumes the blame for the failure of her marriage, doing daily emotional penance for both real and imagined sins. Cantwell embarks on a four-year-long love affair with a renowned writer to whom she refers as ""the balding man"" (readers are likely to recognize poet James Dickey). Married and a womanizer, he is presented here as a man of cruelty masked by an oily Southern charm; the relationship seems more manipulative than loving. After the death of his wife, he teases and torments Cantwell with the promise of marriage; later a friend informs her that he has married a student. However agonizing the betrayal, it also becomes a form of absolution for Cantwell: ""I have paid the penance for failing my husband."" All is not Sturm und Drang, however. Cantwell paints a hilariously wicked portrait of writer Frederick Exley, whom she visits in Hawaii while on a magazine assignment; the late rock critic Lillian Roxon, who became a confidant, is treated with warmth and affection. Passionate about words and books, she still remembers exactly what she was reading on the travel assignments that took her to Russia, Turkey and Tashkent, where she often found herself ""speaking with strangers."" What is most striking about Cantwell's memoir is the glory of the language and her powers of observation. She brings her memories of a time and place into such clear focus that readers will find themselves not only sharing her memories but wandering through their own. Author tour. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 03/30/1998
Release date: 04/01/1998
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 96 pages - 978-0-14-028360-0
Open Ebook - 159 pages - 978-0-547-56137-0
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