Are You Happy?: A Childhood Remembered

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An elegant dissection of how youthful happiness is lost, by a memoirist of great style and insight.

"The happiness of childhood is existential, not psychological," writes Emily Fox Gordon. Are You Happy? is an evocation of a peculiar and paradoxical kind of happiness-the happiness of an unhappy child. Gordon was a fatty, an academic failure, a schoolyard pariah, a disappointment to her highly educated parents. And yet her early life was, as she puts it, "a succession of moments ...

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Are You Happy?: A Childhood Remembered

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Overview

An elegant dissection of how youthful happiness is lost, by a memoirist of great style and insight.

"The happiness of childhood is existential, not psychological," writes Emily Fox Gordon. Are You Happy? is an evocation of a peculiar and paradoxical kind of happiness-the happiness of an unhappy child. Gordon was a fatty, an academic failure, a schoolyard pariah, a disappointment to her highly educated parents. And yet her early life was, as she puts it, "a succession of moments of radiant apprehension." In a later age she might have been medicated and counseled and ferried from one appointment to another. But growing up in the college town of Williamstown, Massachusetts, in the fifties, she spent her days rambling through woods and meadows, rattling around in the basements of college buildings and dropping in on student acquaintances via the fire escapes of dormitories. She was free to be alone with her thoughts, to mumble observations and descriptions as she cultivated the writer's lifelong habit of translating experience into words.

In the hands of this exceptional stylist and rigorous, elegant thinker, we understand how happiness can be recaptured through telling the story of its loss. As Gordon grew older, she began to be aware of her charming mother's long, slow withdrawal into alcoholic depression. This was a new kind of observation, made from the outside. Having learned to assume this perspective, Gordon began to see happiness as something outside herself, something she could appropriate from the world and make her own. In Are You Happy? Gordon recounts how her childish view the world was lost, and of how that loss ended her childhood.

Depicted here is the evolution of a wise and perceptive child's self-awareness-and as such, it is an exemplar of the examined life.

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Editorial Reviews

Elizabeth McCracken
There is not much plot in Are You Happy? but it is abundant in the pleasures of memoir - the things described therein are remembered as intricately, as ruthlessly, as possible. The memories here are artifacts brought back from Gordon's personal archaeology, and they shine like the marvelous things they are.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The answer to the question posed by such a title would seem, inevitably, to be "no," but Gordon qualifies her frequent tears as "the manifestation of a particularly satisfying kind of lyrical sadness." This is her second venture into memoir, following the well-reviewed Mockingbird Years, an account of her institutionalization as a late teenager and subsequent therapy. This book covers her earlier, 1950s childhood as the daughter of a miserly and often hectoring Jewish economics professor at Williams College, whom she claims to have hated, and his eventually alcoholic Presbyterian schoolteacher wife. Though bright (readers are told frequently), Gordon felt like a "misfit"; an overweight, underachieving faculty brat; a "social pariah"; a "blob." By sixth grade, she was failing school and, like her classmates, fascinated by sex. A crush on her voice coach led her to try to implicate his wife in an affair with the soccer coach, but the lie was easily discovered, leaving her humiliated and eager to move with her parents from the Berkshires to Manhattan for a fresh start. The book, about childhood friends and teachers, too, analyzes Gordon's parents throughout. Early on, Gordon comments, "There's nothing more tiresome than a grown daughter's brief against her parents." Indeed. (Mar.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
When looking back on childhood, one may remember not so much specific events as overall feelings or impressions. Here, however, Gordon touches upon some ground in minute detail but leaves other, larger issues unexplored as to the impact on her psyche. Further, her account does not stick to a straight time line, making it hard to follow her through her childhood years. Perhaps that's a metaphor for the freedom she had to explore the fields, campuses, and neighborhoods of the East Coast college towns where she grew up. This is a prequel, if you will, to Gordon's first book, Mockingbird Years: A Life In and Out of Therapy. But while Mockingbird (a New York Times Notable Book) was deeply affecting, this new work lacks the same impact. Though the poetic insights remain, Gordon seems to want to attribute most of them to her younger self, but it's hard to believe that such discerning thoughts belong to an elementary school-aged child. Recommended for public libraries with large budgets. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/05.]-Jamie Engle, Richardson, TX Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The prequel to Gordon's Mockingbird Years (2000), which told of her life in and out of therapy. While that book included some of her childhood memories, this one deals exclusively with her preteen years growing up in Williamstown, Mass., home of Williams College, where her father was a professor of economics. Her father does not fare well in these pages, nor does her mother; her older sister is almost entirely absent, and her younger brother, Andy, is fondly remembered only in their very early years together. This is the author's story, one of a child out of sync with the world around her. Her best times seem to have been traipsing freely about the Williams campus, exploring it and the surrounding countryside. She was, she insists, happy as a child, but the memories she conjures up seldom bear out this claim. The picture that emerges is of an introspective, physically unattractive child, often alone, failing in school, and for years the victim of other children's teasing. She says that she cried a good deal as a child, but that her tears were "the manifestation of a particularly satisfying kind of lyrical sadness." To comfort herself, she engaged in a kind of internal writing, not putting her words on paper, but mumbling aloud descriptions of herself and her own behavior and her observations about those around her. It is difficult to know what to make of Gordon's memoir as a document of a childhood; adult sensibilities can't help but inform the work. Her writing, however, is skillful, and her account is replete with lucid scenes, capturing moments of pleasure and pain, awkwardness and confusion, torment and temporary triumph. A wistful coming-of-age tale.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594489044
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 3/16/2006
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.78 (w) x 8.56 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Emily Fox Gordon is an award-winning essayist and the author of the memoir Mockingbird Years: A Life In and Out of Therapy, a New York Times notable book. Her work has appeared in The American Scholar, the Pushcart Prize anthologies, The Anchor Essay Annual, The New York Times Book Review, Boulevard, and Salmagundi. She has taught at Rice University and the University of Wyoming.

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