cover image BEAUTY BEFORE COMFORT: A Memoir


Allison Glock, . . Knopf, $20 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40121-3

In West Virginia hillbilly country during the 1930s and '40s, Aneita Jean Blair was a "slinky redhead with a knowing smile" and a Miss America figure. She was shamelessly provocative, relentlessly freeloving and determined to get the hell out of depressed Hancock County. She also had a stinging wit and a storehouse of aphorisms ("beauty before comfort" was one). Although her life turned out to be far narrower than her aspirations, Aneita Jean was lucky in having a granddaughter, the author of this memoir, who has conveyed her flamboyant personality and memorialized the strings of beaux she ran through, the chic clothes she wore and the tragedies she surmounted. While the narrative initially grabs the reader with bold and brassy anecdotes, when Glock segues into the history of the Blair family, the tension declines. The story is sometimes poignant, sometimes predictable and sometimes far-fetched. While some of her reconstructed family tales run thin, Glock does not honey coat her grandmother's character. Not every granddaughter would write, "she had given in entirely to her shallowest instincts and run whole hog into the bliss of debauchery." As a social history the memoir fascinates. Because of the clay on the shores of the Ohio River, pottery factories were established there in the 1850s, and they became the family trade. Descriptions of factory jobs, the brutal working conditions and the chronic diseases they caused (including rampant alcoholism) are valuable indices of our national history. The account's candor and Glock's gift for juicy metaphors ("Puberty hit my grandmother like a dropped piano") add memorable touches to an offbeat story. 20 photos. Agent, Sarah Chalfant. (May 6)