Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town

Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town

by Sarah Payne Stuart
     
 

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A wryly comic memoir that examines the pillars of New England WASP culture—class, history, family, money, envy, perfection, and, of course, real estate—through the lens of mothers and daughters.

At eighteen, Sarah Payne Stuart fled her mother and all the other disapproving mothers of her too perfect hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, only to…  See more details below

Overview

A wryly comic memoir that examines the pillars of New England WASP culture—class, history, family, money, envy, perfection, and, of course, real estate—through the lens of mothers and daughters.

At eighteen, Sarah Payne Stuart fled her mother and all the other disapproving mothers of her too perfect hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, only to return years later when she had children of her own. Whether to defy the previous generation or finally earn their approval and enter their ranks, she hurled herself into upper-crust domesticity full throttle. In the twenty years Stuart spent back in her hometown—in a series of ever more magnificent houses in ever grander neighborhoods—she was
forced to connect with the cultural tradition of guilt and flawed parenting of a long legacy of local, literary women from Emerson’s wife, to Hawthorne’s, to the most famous and imposing of them all, Louisa May Alcott’s iconic, guilt-tripping Marmee.

When Stuart’s own mother dies, she realizes that there is no one left to approve or disapprove. And so, with her suddenly grown children fleeing as she herself once did, Stuart leaves her hometown for the final time, bidding good-bye to the cozy ideals invented for her by Louisa May Alcott so many years ago, which may or may not ever have been based in reality.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Suzannah Lessard
Concord, Mass., is a sacred spot in the mythology of New England Protestants, once the Brahmins of American society, now fast becoming just another ethnic group. With this change comes new material for our venerable tradition of ethnic comedy. The territory is not altogether virgin, of course, but Sarah Payne Stuart comes to it with freshness and flair in this memoir…the real action in the book is the deployment of Stuart's fantastic knowledge of this subculture for comic delight.
Publishers Weekly
12/01/2014
A follow-up to Stuart's previous family memoir, My First Cousin Once Removed, this evenhanded work takes aim at her double-edged WASP childhood in Concord, Mass.—where she and her documentary-producer husband moved back to raise their three young children. Living again among the God-fearing, hard-working, parsimonious descendants of the early Puritan settlers—her mother's old money clan— Stuart felt comfortingly part of the Elect, yet also deeply conflicted. Concord was the storied seat of the Transcendentalists, artists and deep thinkers like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and the Bronson Alcott family, especially daughter Louisa May Alcott whose novel Little Women deeply informed Stuart's childhood. Guilt hovers over much of Stuart's sense of her childhood, involving her mother's depressive episodes and early breakdown, and her own desire to win her mother's approval, which she finally did by buying a house (well beyond their means) on Nashawtuc Hill—"I had known that I was too weak to resist the cozy beauty of the hill," she admits, "and the terrible lure of its desirability." Skillfully, Stuart buttresses her own family's neuroses with those of Thoreau or the Alcotts for a hilariously bracing and honest look at generational mayhem and triumph. (June)
From the Publisher
 

"The book is a love letter to the author’s family, her fellow ‘old-moneyed Yankees’ and even to herself. . . . It’s on contemporary Concord that Stuart is at her best. . . . The real action in the book is the deployment of Stuart’s fantastic knowledge of this subculture for comic delight.”—The New York Times Book Review

“For all WASP’s—or anyone who likes to laugh at them. Perfectly hilarious.”—Town and Country

"Witty, acerbic . . . hilariously sarcastic.”—Wall Street Journal

“Stuart learns, as most of us do, that one can never return to the past or make it anew…attempts to reshape the past do, however, demonstrate the tonic value of humor.”—Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"A prodigal WASP daughter returns to her New England roots in Sarah Payne Stuart’s Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town, filled with laughs as long and wince-inducing as a snowbound Concord winter."—Vogue.com

“Stuart writes honestly and lovingly about her aging parents, her childhood, money, the trials of parenthood and keeping her marriage afloat. In other words, everything. Perfectly Miserable is a gorgeously rendered portrait of modern life—and a reminder that some things never change.”—BookPage

"As an exiled New Englander still obsessed with Thoreau’s weird little life, I devoured Stuart’s memoir of returning to her hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, a place still laden with the ghosts of childhood past: from her family, to the Transcendentalists, there’s a lot of weight there, and Stuart writes it all out in funny, wry prose."—Flavorwire

"A writer’s wickedly droll account of how she came to terms with her WASP heritage and the impossible expectations of 'mother' New England. . . . In this wry memoir, the author explores her relationship with her hometown and with a whole host of Concord notables, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathanial Hawthorne to Louisa May Alcott, whose fictional mother Marmee—and the perpetually miserable Alcott matriarch on whom she was based—represents everything good and bad about New England culture. . . . Satire at its finest."—Kirkus (starred view)

"This is a true story wonderfully told, infused with place and history, with wit and warmth toward all those it satirizes. To call it funny seems inadequate. There is a depth of understanding in its humor; it is funniest when it deals in sadness. I can't remember the last time I read a book I liked as much."—Tracy Kidder, Pulizer Prize and National Book Award winning author of Home Town and House

"A warmly wise and elegantly funny memoir for all of us tormented by class, money, the mis-remembrance of things past, and real estate.  This book is for anyone who has ever felt guilty, lived in a house, or had parents.  If you don't love Perfectly Miserable, text me for your money back."—Patricia Marx, author of Him Her Him Again The End of Him

"Perfectly Miserable is an acidic, hilarious, and monumentally self-deprecating account of its author’s doomed love affair with the world’s quaintest town."—Boston Magazine 

 

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-05-07
A writer's wickedly droll account of how she came to terms with her WASP heritage and the impossible expectations of "mother" New England.With its "pristine town center, gleaming with historically correct colors," Stuart's (My First Cousin Once Removed: Money, Madness, and the Family of Robert Lowell, 1998, etc.) hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, seemed the embodiment of perfection. But as Stuart well knew, high-flying moral pretensions, hypocrisy, and an insatiable hunger for social prestige and high-priced real estate bubbled just beneath the deceptively charming surface. In this wry memoir, the author explores her relationship with her hometown and with a whole host of Concord notables, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathanial Hawthorne to Louisa May Alcott, whose fictional mother Marmee—and the perpetually miserable Alcott matriarch on whom she was based—represents everything good and bad about New England culture. A rebel who defied the WASP values of thrift, practicality and quiet snobbery, Payne fled Concord for New York after an early marriage. Yet within 10 years of leaving, her longing to return home became "obsessive." Concord had "become a kind of utopia, where [she] would give her children the perfect childhood." It also became a personal testing ground where she fantasized she could engage in error-free parenting while earning the approval of her own mother and father. Instead, Stuart found herself moving into larger and larger homes she and her husband could not afford and joining exclusive social clubs, all in the name of maintaining the facade of WASP success. Seeking enlightenment about her dilemmas and compulsions, the author examines her family's personal history as well as Concord literary history. She learned that her pattern of feeling guilt and smugness on the one hand and seeing nonexistent coziness on the other were part of a heritage best survived through self-deprecating humor.Satire at its finest.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101626740
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
06/12/2014
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
231,909
File size:
6 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE
FLEEING MARMEE

Concord, Massachusetts: a Protestant Disneyland.

IF YOU COME FROM NEW ENGLAND, the creeping certainty that you are a bad person is always with you. It wakes you with a start at four a.m. with the remembrance of a thank-you note forever unwritten. It asks you to please explain yourself when you pick up your dry cleaning onONE DAY SPECIAL three weeks late. It darts out through the dental hygienist’s reprimand that you are the captain of your own ship. Whoever and wherever you are, if you come from this stern mother of our country, a spark of your innate unworthiness is embedded in your soul.

But then, there are those brief, shining moments when you don’t hate yourself. Joy is everywhere. We see it in the old houses and historic town centers that deepen our landscape with a past whose beauty surmounts its burdens; we see it in the endless meadowlands and fields and woods running wild under our careful conservation. Yes, we are sinners in the hands of an angry God; still, looking around us, we can’t help but believe that someone up there might like us just a little bit more than He likes everyone else. We are like our Puritan forefathers who loathed themselves on the one hand, and thought they were above everyone else on the other. We love our Puritan ancestors, as most of our friends are sick of hearing—though sometimes we wish they’d left us a little more money.

New England can be as stingy with its welcome as it is stingy with its weather. But catch New England on a good day and there is a cozy uplift to the scene that takes the breath away. The sight of the hardy, high-spirited children, released from school on a perfect September afternoon to run through the antique towns, will draw even the most confirmed West Coaster to the window of a local realtor. And yet, it should never be forgotten: New England is an unforgiving place. Like the adored but disapproving mothers who populate it, it grips its children in the vise of its impossible expectations.

My hometown was the cradle of it all. Concord, Massachusetts, settled by Puritans in 1635, is “America’s oldest continuously inhabited inland town,” an official Facebook page will inform you, and the fact of this slightly qualified boast puts resolution in its residents’ hearts today. Here, for the glory of God, rich English Puritans slept in mud bunkers penetrated by heavy rains, and sang psalms of thanksgiving, even as they cut their flat Indian bread into thinner and thinner slices. The rivers overflowed the pastures, the cattle died, the horses and sheep couldn’t live on the land, and the wolves ate the pigs. But did the Puritans complain? No, they bottled it up, making “griping” a punishable offense.

Here, Patriot mothers stored gunpowder in their chambers and sent their sons to war so they could have taxation with representation. Here the great Emerson conceived a religion so lofty nobody has ever been able to explain it, yet lagged for fifteen years behind his wife in the antislavery cause. Here, for his whole life, Henry Thoreau lived, above it all perhaps, but still with his mother, and—despite his independent spirit—unable to live anywhere else.

Here also Nathaniel Hawthorne lived, next door to Louisa May Alcott and her pontificating parents: the useless Bronson, lounging on his front lawn with an apple, hoping to tempt someone (anyone) into conversation; the guilt-tripping “Marmee,” overburdened and not keeping that fact to herself, slamming the door of Orchard House as she bustled in and out with moralistic platitudes and baskets of good deeds. Marmee who made her daughters grieve each selfish thought; Marmee who couldn’t resist dragging a quiet moment down with a lecture; Marmee who reprimanded the rich, even as they gave to the poor, on why they didn’t give more. Hawthorne avoided Mrs. Alcott at any cost, slipping through the woods behind his house seeking alternate routes to town; his wife, Sophia, had looked both ways before stepping out, fleeing at the sight of Marmee.

Yet it was Marmee, the most disapproving woman of all time, who inspired the most popular girls’ book of all time, Little Women. And it was her daughter, Louisa May, who, though not perhaps the most profound writer of the revered “Concord Authors,” was for me the most affecting. Not that I wouldn’t have happily married the wise and handsome Emerson, at any age you’d care to pick (if only for his house); not that Hawthorne’s Puritan guilt doesn’t make me feel at home; not that Thoreau’s quest to regain his childhood isn’t mine. But it was Louisa who’d been a girl in Concord, scrabbling for money with three siblings and mental illness in the house; Louisa, whose wishful, saccharine version of life with Marmee was far more of a utopia to me than Thoreau’s no-frills cabin in the woods.

Even now I see Marmee, dusty and patched, falling exhausted in her chair by the warm but shabby hearth, her “little women” scurrying to plump a cushion. This very day I cannot turn to the loving group around Marmee in the frontispiece of Little Women without suffering a pang of longing. Even when I know there was no servant Hannah in the kitchen, but Louisa herself, scrubbing and cooking, when she wasn’t churning out “moral pap” for children—all to take care of Marmee. For what girl or woman among us does not long for a nod from Marmee, to be assured that she is not as bad as she knows herself to be?

To this day in Concord, Marmees still bound from the bushes: matrons of steel, born and bred to outlast the men who once found something to marry them for; no-nonsense women of indiscernible ages out walking their dogs, slickered and zippered against the most promising weather, huffing disapproval as they go. “Why are the young always fixing up their houses?” one cries out to a near-twin companion. “What this country needs is a good depression!” These were the matriarchs of my youth, a landscape of cherished but not always cherishing women—mending their swimsuits, buying gingerly at the A&P, holding up the bank line with their satchels of rolled pennies, attacking their lawn with broken bamboo rakes. Some I have loved and some I have not, but all, with the flattening of a smile, could conjure a mother’s rejection, reducing me to a speck on the floor. I fled them at eighteen. I went to Cambridge, to California, to New York. Away, away, and finally happy and married and writing advertising copy on Madison Avenue, and living blissfully beyond our means in a New York suburb, and writing a novel at last, and paying too much for things and never wasting one paper towel when I could waste six. And then I had children. Suddenly I was homesick for a childhood I had invented as surely as Louisa Alcott had invented hers. Suddenly nothing would do but return to the cold heart of New England. Whether to defy the mothers of my youth, or become them, I did not know.

AND SO, pregnant with my third child, I decided to move back to my hometown. “So the kids can have swimming lessons at Walden Pond!” I explained breathlessly to my husband, Charlie. I was in my thirties at the time, still radiant with the delusions that brighten the threshold of middle age. I’d just sold my first novel, which I shyly conceded would probably become a best seller. I had become the mother of two charming, kneesocked little boys, who I knew would never play with toy guns or grow up to be mortified by their parents. The future, in the days one dared contemplate such a thing, beckoned.

Of course, growing up, I had hated swimming lessons at Walden Pond, almost as much as I had hated hearing about Henry David Thoreau. Lessons were always early in the morning, as all group swimming lessons seem destined to be, before the water or you were warm, and the groups were so large, and I so athletically doltish, I could never grasp how you were supposed to breathe during the crawl, and year after year I was the tallest, most knobby-kneed, in advanced beginners. But even this ignominy had become just one thread of a tapestried memory, with the early morning sun glinting over the momentarily urine-free water, as Janie McClintock and I climbed off the bus at the trailer park across the street and sauntered barefoot over the blacktop and down the steps to the grainy, old-Band-Aid-infested beach.

Janie McClintock and Tammy Ross and Rusty Ryerson and every other neighborhood friend I’d had clubs with, and clubs against, had long since vanished, moved away from New England, out West, or anyway, west, catapulted from this strong, crisp mother of our country into various melting-pot colleges, then into jobs with potential and fresh-faced first marriages. The Concord Journal began citing other children who’d made dean’s list or police log (or both), and soon each neighborhood friend was lost track of, most of their parents also moving away from this breathtaking, impossibly beautiful town, as if trying to make a quick getaway before there was nothing left to brag about. For Concord demands perfect childhoods; follow even the most perfect child into later life and you will find, at best, disappointment and heartache.

Nothing could have been more psychologically unsound than moving back to my hometown—where my parents still lived—to raise my kids. Once, I had scorned my mother’s housewife ways and rolled my eyes at the liberal, cocktail-party politics of her garden club crowd. But now the protected childhood I had managed to be so bitter about was to be gloriously re-created for my kids, with my own vast improvements, as my mother and father watched.

And yet, the truth is, I was never happier. We moved in July, and the sun coursed through the old house Charlie and I bought a quarter of a mile from the house I’d grown up in. My childhood home had bordered the railroad tracks, but this house was on the river. We had large delphiniums in the back and the boys ran in and out into the yard at will. With our new line of credit, we were no longer strapped for money. We’d been strapped ever since Charlie had quit his job in New York to start his own business so we could move to New England, but now we had extra cash. “Enough to send a kid through college!” we might have cried, we (the children of savers) with not one penny saved for retirement. But instead of saving one penny, we spent it like stolen money, breathless with greed. Like a roaring river, we poured cash on our modest farmhouse. We painted and wallpapered and added on a sunroom and an office and put up carved moldings, all in the space of six months, in a frenzy, lest cooler heads prevail. Excitedly, but anxiously, I flouted the penny-pinching standards of the town mothers on the one hand, and cravenly craved their acceptance on the other. My own mother, though worried that we were spending too much, seemed as thrilled as I was with our endless renovations. The old house shone with newness. And we shone too.

Euphoria pulsed through me. I wandered the Concord streets weepy with adoration for anything that had ever happened in my youth. The sight of the dentist’s door, still with the same lettering, where I had averaged five cavities a visit, filled my heart to brimming. I gulped down sobs as I took out books from the library, where my red candy stain could still be found on its copy of Little Men, the drab, ageless librarian of my youth eyeing me, unmoved. I croaked brokenly for a loaf of bread as I came through the swinging doors of the Sally Ann bakery. I rented an office downtown in my former school, Emerson Junior High, recently reconstituted as a center for the arts, where the Concord ladies painted sunsets or sunrises. I walked down Main Street, past my childhood home, to my house, filled with sun and happy children.

I had barely graced a church since the day I didn’t get revelation at my sixth-grade confirmation. But now I found myself attending the funerals of my parents’ friends—some of whom I had only met a handful of times—as a venue for my flooding gratitude for being home again. During one funeral, my father sat quietly in the congregation, only to look up and see me, lurching up to the communion rail in a clinging black dress like a secret mistress, my eyes blinded with tears for a man I would not have recognized on the street. When the congregation rose to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” I collapsed into the seat with a yelp, so overcome was I with emotion.

I had returned, the prodigal daughter, to the perfect town, nearly perfect myself: a mother of three, well married, well housed, well careered. For even my semiautobiographical novel, which had produced months of daily migraines as I awaited its publication, had passed my mother’s inspection. “It is a good book, and well written,” she had informed me rather formally by letter, addressed to Mrs. Charles Stuart, on stationery with Mrs. William M. Payne printed at the top. My book had been sanctioned by my mother—if only in our husbands’ names.

I thanked the Lord, whoever He was, as I drove past the familiar old houses to the pristine town center, gleaming with historically correct colors. For whoever God was, clearly He resided here, where the white church steeples pierced the azure sky and the upright Concordians walked briskly to the ATM, knowing the money would always be there. I felt accepted—by the town, and by the God that had guided it, ever since the first Puritans had hacked their way through the wilderness, bleeding through their silk stockings—willing to risk freezing, starvation, and the loss of their scalps in order to pray all Sunday morning and all Sunday afternoon to their unforgiving God.

And it seemed that that unforgiving God was my God. Because what I felt those first glorious months back in Concord was forgiven: filled with the grace of God’s—and my mother’s—approval.

CHAPTER TWO
GOD AND MY MOTHER

Everyone in Concord was an artist, except my poor mother.

The Concord Art Association.

ON THE BRIGHT SIDE of Protestant self-loathing is the industry it provokes. Louisa Alcott wrote a brutal fourteen hours a day, long after she had made more money than her family needed. Even the great picnicker, Henry Thoreau, could not justify the indulgence of living in nature unless he turned it into work. Despite his talk of indolence, Thoreau could not walk in the woods on a weekday morning, as my mother did with Mrs. Potter, simply to look at the fall leaves: he had to transform the experience into a book for posterity.

And yet, even for my mother a walk in the woods had a purpose—to take the fresh air on a Monday morning as befitted those fortunate enough to have been born into the Protestant Elect. One of the goals of the Concord matron of my mother’s generation was to stand monument to the fact that, though never idle, she did not work for money—to prove, in my father’s parlance, that she was a lady. And so, though my father’s salary as a mattress salesman did not go far in supporting four children, my mother never considered taking a paying job, even after we had all left home. “What would I do?” she would query guiltily. “Work in a dress shop?” A feeling of accomplishment was important for a lady, as long as what you accomplished was ephemeral, like running a booth at the church fair or finishing a spring clean of a house. When I asked my mother what her friend, “the poetess,” had published, my mother loftily answered, “She would never publish her poems, it would ruin them.” My mother had tremendous drive, but much of the fervor of her Protestant ambition was channeled into the age-old question of whether to have peas or carrots for supper.

My parents had been through a war, my mother’s nervous breakdown, four births, and five real estate transactions by the time they moved to Concord in 1957, and in Concord they finally found themselves. In Concord, they fit in, as they had never fit in in Hamden, Connecticut, where everyone had gone to Yale; or Westchester County, New York, where the curtains matched the slipcovers. My parents were, in terms of their tribe, “well bred,” as only a New Englander or a Southerner could be—meaning they were nice to everyone and especially nice to the cleaning lady. They knew how to serve a tennis ball and throw a fun, fuss-free party (with my father on Dixieland banjo, and an enormous sausage and rice casserole from The I Hate to Cook Book for soaking up the alcohol), and their humor was always at their own expense. My parents would have sooner died on the cross than discuss money with their friends, which worked out particularly well since they didn’t have any money to discuss. Some of the old guard in Concord were rich and some weren’t, but everyone was so frugal it was hard to tell the difference. So though my father did not rise a jot in his career selling mattresses, nor my mother progress in any of her artistic hobbies, in Concord they were somebody.

It had been a sad day when the Simmons Company moved my parents away from Concord in 1969 as my father neared sixty. Like lambs to the slaughterhouse, they dutifully returned to Westchester County to mark time in a very nice house in a very nice town where they knew no one and no one knew them. They scheduled their days around Weight Watchers Maintenance diets and the unsettling visits of adult children who weren’t very adult, and trips to the vet with their blind and deaf mutt, Scout; they held on to their Concord Country Club membership and subscription to The Concord Journal. Then when my father reached early-retirement age, they sold their house at a loss and joyously returned to a ranch house in the wrong part of town. For nearly thirty years, my parents re-resided in Concord, as happy, really, as anyone could ever ask to be. No matter what new tortures their grown children devised for them or what tortures my mother devised for herself, they were in Concord, where their friends understood who they were.

To the outside eye, my mother’s life was a life of leisure, absurdly fortunate, lived in her favorite town, filled with friends and worthwhile things to do—for, to be content, the New England matriarch must always be contributing to society, if only to the society of other matriarchs. Mrs. Bridge, the midwestern lady of Evan S. Connell’s 1958 novel, might go shopping and return home bemused because there was nothing left to buy, but the Concord matron has no time for such idleness. No days of shopping and lazy lunches and afternoon manicures for these busy women who have never needed to work. Within months of their deathbeds, they can be seen standing, staunch or bent, outside their pretty houses at nine a.m., waiting to be picked up by another octogenarian millionaire in an inexpensive car on the way to a prison-outreach meeting. Their schedules do not lag even as their husbands drop by the wayside, but are packed with charities, clubs, paddle tennis matches, and artistic endeavors. Since the days of May Alcott, the ladies of Concord have been sketching and painting with the clear-sighted purpose of finishing the picture to put it in a show in order to sell it to one another. Almost every one of my mother’s peers was an artist. Even the acultural Mrs. Rockwell, who wanted to put fig leafs on all the statues when she went to Italy, has in her dining room a large watercolor of a bare beach in winter, which is pretty damn good. My mother was an anomaly, with no drawing talent whatsoever, but this did not keep her from taking lessons. Fortunately, nowhere to be found is her charcoal sketch that bears no semblance of a tree. And all that remains of her years and years of silversmithing classes are some old unmatched globs of silver, a few with pins soldered onto the back; my father’s cowboy belt buckle, which my mother had presented him with at age eighty-five, much to the chagrin of my dapper father, who wore it concealed by a pullover sweater; and a delicate hammered bracelet of silver flowers she’d made during her year and a half at the mental hospital in White Plains, New York. “I may not have been with you when you were a baby, but I was always thinking of you,” she said when she gave it to me several years ago.

And yet, if my mother did not possess the craftsmanship of her Concord peers, she possessed something in her past that distinguished her from them: she had once, before she was married, stepped beyond the safety of her circle to compete in the real world. At eighteen, she had moved to New York determined to become a professional actress—no better than a prostitute in the eyes of her proper Bostonian grandfather—and nearly succeeded, studying for two years, then going the rounds with the Broadway producers. Her years of studying acting had lifted her into the sublime, but trying to sell herself had been a torture she hadn’t been able to withstand for more than nine months. She had tried to beat the odds of her New England upbringing by going before the public, flouting the maxim that one may only appear in the newspapers three times—at one’s birth, wedding, and death. Who knows what might have happened if she had persevered? She had true comic talent, though I saw it in full display only once, during a rehearsal of the Concord Players’ production of Cinderella, in which she played the wicked stepmother. The night before the first public performance, she had gotten violently ill. Soon after, even the Concord amateur productions were relinquished, because the high she felt when she acted interfered with the person she felt she should be—a New England lady who kept herself in check. Or, as she put it, the acting took her away from my father.

Still, my mother had the perfect life in Concord, as she herself would have defined it, despite the fact she had been dealt depressive genes and a selfish mother, and her daily joys were weighted down by the fear of rejection that had colored her life since infancy. The year I moved back to Concord, my mother had just been made chairman of the ladies committee for The Cripple School, cofounded by her grandfather (and of course no longer called The Cripple School). But even this clear mark of approval had pierced her like a poisoned arrow, calling forth childhood fears of disapproval, shooting anxiety through her neck and back, and rattling the nerves of her feet, so that she hobbled about at The Cripple School meetings, crippled herself, passing the hors d’oeuvres.

FOR THOUGH my mother blithely attended the nonsectarian Unitarian church in Concord, the terrors of a Calvinist God were always with her. My mother believed that even having an evil thought meant you were evil; that if one wasn’t good, then one must be bad—just as her Puritan ancestors had believed four hundred years before, except with a bit more confidence in which side of the divide they had landed. My mother’s ancestors had been so sure of themselves, in fact, they’d taunted King James for a pass to the New World and then prayed incessantly on deck the stormy way over, ignoring the jeers of the Mayflower sailors. A few years later, another ancestor, Anne Hutchinson—a wealthy mother of fifteen—had been so Puritan even the Puritans couldn’t stand her. After publicly refusing to answer to any authority but God, she’d promptly been banished from the Massachusetts colony by Governor John Winthrop, eventually landing herself in New York, where she and five of her children were slaughtered by Indians. Despite being warned by friendly neighbors of the coming attack, she’d remained defiantly (possibly psychotically) at home, positive that God would protect her. Today Anne Hutchinson is remembered as an early advocate for religious freedom and her name adorns a highway in Westchester County and the school one passes on the way to Lord & Taylor in Eastchester—but as a mother, perhaps, the five massacred children might have felt she left something to be desired.

The rest of my mother’s family had stuck to Boston—the Puritans’ “city on the hill,” built for all the world to view—long after the world had stopped viewing. Believing in “family” as a whole, if not always on speaking terms with some of its members, they’d married within—producing double-cousins, manic depressives, and relentless books about their genealogy that not even the family read. They made money and lost money; wished they were dead and yet held on for dear life. By my mother’s mother’s generation, the family’s religious fervor had dwindled to a single, soporific, society-approved hour in church on Sundays (when they weren’t at their country houses where they rested from God). “Nonbelieving New England Protestants,” my mother’s first cousin, the poet Robert Lowell, called them, and remembering my great-aunts and -uncles chatting away merrily at funerals, I see his point. But then, my rich relatives didn’t really need to have faith in God any longer because, clearly, God had faith in them—just look at their houses.

A large house wasn’t just permissible in the Protestant ethic, it was a sign of election. The Puritans believed you were either one of the chosen (the Elect) or one of the Damned, as predestined by God—and worldly success or failure was one way to tell which one you were. Peter Bulkeley, Concord’s extremely rich reverend founder, may have lived in underground bunkers for many months, but he did bring a carpenter from England with him to build him what I am sure was a very nice house. For New England Protestants, appearances are everything: they must look like they have money (and therefore clearly belong to God’s Elect), and yet they must seem to care nothing for it. At the root of the tangled New England neurosis is a deep respect for the money it loathes.

So the one luxury the old money permit themselves is a well-proportioned house in the right part of town, big enough to allow its owners to complain that they can’t afford to live there. The bedroom floors are ice cold with a strip of thin, fraying carpet for one’s feet to land upon from the tall, creaky, inherited bed (with its original mattress); the towels are balding with hanging threads; the ceilings are high, and the temperatures low in the winter and stifling in the summer; the food is plentiful, but plain and predictable, a rotation of meals handed down from generation to generation. But the houses—one gasps at the sight of their pillars and the breadths of their front halls.

My grandmother’s generation was still rich enough that no one had to work for a living. But of course they did work for a living. My mother’s grandfather, uncles, and cousins practiced as doctors until they dropped. A proper New Englander worked no matter how much money he had, just as his wife rose at seven-thirty to breakfast at eight, no matter how much leisure time stretched before her. For many years, I assumed that all doctors made fabulous salaries, remembering visits to imposing family compounds—the immaculate basement awash with cooks and servants, the cavernous upstairs with paneled libraries and long, glistening dining rooms. But as it turns out, my mother’s mother’s family had been living off the ever-diminishing fortune of an ancestor who was, according to someone or other in the family, “the first millionaire in New England.” The dregs of this fortune, by the 1970s, provided its recipients with just enough annual cash for a year’s tuition at Harvard, at about the time their children were no longer getting in (merit having so rudely entered the admission equation). Of course, the millionaire ancestor was a sketchy character, having made his money pirating British ships during the War of 1812. But never mind. Nothing is so persuasive of one’s Elect status than financial success. When the family offered his portrait to Harvard, it was graciously accepted.

My mother’s mother had grown up in an enormous house in Boston, winter weekending at a nearby farm and summering at a large, rambling Victorian compound in a fashionable Maine enclave. Though the live-in servants outnumbered their employers in my great-grandparents’ establishments, somehow more help was constantly being brought in. Someone even came in to shampoo my teenage grandmother’s hair—what a life!—and yet money and affection were studiously withheld from my grandmother early on, in the great Victorian fear of “spoiling” that seems to particularly afflict those who, having inherited their money, have been spoiled themselves. Even as a little girl, my grandmother had daily chores to do, and whenever she was “wicked,” she’d been locked in a closet. Her parents, combining overindulgence and overpunishing, had followed the perfect recipe for producing a narcissist.

As a mother, my grandmother showered her own little girls with an erratic demonstrativeness, then dropped them cold for weeks at a time, in the care of constantly fleeing servants. She breast-fed my mother with a flourish against the prevailing upper-class custom, then abandoned her, aged six weeks, to spend months with her husband in the army. My mother had regular tantrums as a little girl, as my grandmother had, and my grandmother punished her in the same tried and terrible way she had been punished, dragging her “wicked” screaming toddler up to the attic and locking her in a closet for hours. My mother had few memories of her quiet, Bostonian father, who died of cancer when she was four. But she never forgot the time he crawled from his deathbed up the attic stairs to release her.

My mother, the eldest, and her nearest sister fought violently, hitting each other with hairbrushes. They were the devils, while the baby was my grandmother’s salvation. “My angel,” my grandmother called my youngest aunt, who grew up to have a healing warmth and frequent manic breakdowns, chain-smoking herself to an early death. Once, my grandmother left her three girls under five alone in a hotel bathtub while she met a friend at the bar. Today, such behavior would have sent my grandmother to family court or worse. And yet my grandmother was not mean-spirited—she just could not see beyond her own overpowering needs. She felt the full range of emotions—when her daughters had breakdowns as adults, she wailed at their bedsides with guilt—it was just that her emotions were centered on herself. And, as is so often the case with the selfish mother, her children only loved her more.

My grandmother was distraught after her husband died, but she was still young, and though not beautiful, “she had it,” my mother said. (A quality she maintained that she herself had lacked: “I was more beautiful than you,” she told me when I was a teenager, “but you’re much sexier.”) After a year of weeping and drinking and relegating her children to servants, she fell wildly in love, not with any of the nice, cousinly Bostonians paying her court, but with the least child-friendly of the lot—a handsome Russian nobleman who had escaped the Bolsheviks with daring escapades and no money. My mother’s new stepfather was decidedly not-Boston, exuding an assured, open sexuality seldom seen in my family’s polite, confining circle. He was the successful-with-women kind of man who evinces genuine surprise when anyone declines his advances. “What she needs is a good roll in the hay,” he once laughed about a less-than-compliant maiden aunt within hearing.

Things did not go well with the stepfather. He was the opposite of my mother’s gentle father and insisted on his own way, dominating the dinner table down to the ultra-rich Russian food served by a Russian cook. He had affairs with secretaries, ballerinas, society matrons, and at least one pair of sisters. My grandmother remained enamored of him, dashing off for long romantic trips and allowing him full rein in the discipline of her daughters. My mother’s nearest sister was openly fresh to him but it was my less demonstrative mother who hated their stepfather most of all. My mother had always been called the beauty, her next sister, the brain (who, advanced to my mother’s grade, excelled in the same class, daily ingraining my mother’s belief that she was stupid). By the time my mother was awkwardly turning thirteen, she was developing a body to go with a face that had been Liz Taylor–beautiful from birth. Her stepfather began caressing her arm and talked openly about the fine progress of my mother’s “developing bosom.” Life became intolerable for her.

When life becomes unbearable, it is usually from a sense of guilt. My mother had been riddled with shameful curiosity about sex since she was five and her mother had taken her into bed after the death of her husband to rhapsodize about their ecstatic sex life. Night after night she’d waxed in too great detail, then warned my mother that she must never have sex outside of marriage—it was a terrible sin. My mother’s one premarital affair, in her early twenties, had filled her with such guilt she divulged it to no one, not even my father. My father had gentlemanly held back the first three nights of their honeymoon in deference to my mother’s supposed virginity. “I was dying for him,” she told me, “but what could I do?” She had a point, for when, eight years and four children later, she finally blurted out the news a few days after my birth, my sweet but utterly conventional father had cried out, as he rushed down the hospital hallway, “My wife’s a whore!” “I never want you to feel guilty about sex,” my mother said to me years later, much to my surprise—and I never did.

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What People are saying about this

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"The book is a love letter to the author’s family, her fellow ‘old-moneyed Yankees’ and even to herself. . . . It’s on contemporary Concord that Stuart is at her best. . . . The real action in the book is the deployment of Stuart’s fantastic knowledge of this subculture for comic delight.”—The New York Times Book Review

“For all WASP’s—or anyone who likes to laugh at them. Perfectly hilarious.”—Town and Country

"Witty, acerbic . . . hilariously sarcastic.”—Wall Street Journal

“Stuart learns, as most of us do, that one can never return to the past or make it anew…attempts to reshape the past do, however, demonstrate the tonic value of humor.”—Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"A prodigal WASP daughter returns to her New England roots in Sarah Payne Stuart’s Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town, filled with laughs as long and wince-inducing as a snowbound Concord winter."—Vogue.com

“Stuart writes honestly and lovingly about her aging parents, her childhood, money, the trials of parenthood and keeping her marriage afloat. In other words, everything. Perfectly Miserable is a gorgeously rendered portrait of modern life—and a reminder that some things never change.”—BookPage

"As an exiled New Englander still obsessed with Thoreau’s weird little life, I devoured Stuart’s memoir of returning to her hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, a place still laden with the ghosts of childhood past: from her family, to the Transcendentalists, there’s a lot of weight there, and Stuart writes it all out in funny, wry prose."—Flavorwire

"A writer’s wickedly droll account of how she came to terms with her WASP heritage and the impossible expectations of 'mother' New England. . . . In this wry memoir, the author explores her relationship with her hometown and with a whole host of Concord notables, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathanial Hawthorne to Louisa May Alcott, whose fictional mother Marmee—and the perpetually miserable Alcott matriarch on whom she was based—represents everything good and bad about New England culture. . . . Satire at its finest."—Kirkus (starred view)

"This is a true story wonderfully told, infused with place and history, with wit and warmth toward all those it satirizes. To call it funny seems inadequate. There is a depth of understanding in its humor; it is funniest when it deals in sadness. I can't remember the last time I read a book I liked as much."—Tracy Kidder, Pulizer Prize and National Book Award winning author of Home Town and House

"A warmly wise and elegantly funny memoir for all of us tormented by class, money, the mis-remembrance of things past, and real estate.  This book is for anyone who has ever felt guilty, lived in a house, or had parents.  If you don't love Perfectly Miserable, text me for your money back."—Patricia Marx, author of Him Her Him Again The End of Him

"Perfectly Miserable is an acidic, hilarious, and monumentally self-deprecating account of its author’s doomed love affair with the world’s quaintest town."—Boston Magazine 

 

 

 

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Meet the Author

Sarah Payne Stuart has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review. She divides her time between Maine and New York.

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