“Ours was a word-oriented family,” Anne Fadiman declares on the second page of her winning new memoir — an understatement if ever there was one. Fadiman, who has written delightful bibliophilic essays (collected in Ex Libris and At Large and At Small) about building castles at age four with her father’s pocket-size set of Trollope and being fed a rich diet of polysyllabic words — courtesy of his bedtime stories about a bookworm who satisfies an appetite for sesquipedalian nutrition by chomping through dictionaries — has at long last expanded on these charming glimpses of her bookish upbringing.
The Wine Lover’s Daughter introduces Fadiman’s father and kindred spirit, wordsmith and wit Clifton Fadiman (1904–99), to a new generation with a deliciously rich, well-balanced portrait. The book is centered as much on his passion for fine wine — and her own inability to develop a taste for it — as on his extraordinary “multihypenate” career as a longtime New Yorker book critic, emcee of the wildly popular NBC radio quiz show Information Please, Book-of-the-Month Club judge, and author of Wally the Wordworm and numerous literary anthologies, all sadly out of print.
Fadiman’s first line sets the tone: “My father was a lousy driver and a two-finger typist, but he could open a wine bottle as deftly as any swain ever undressed his lover.” That “swain” is pure Fadiman. So, too, are her astute comments about “Brief History of a Love Affair,” her father’s introduction to The Joys of Wine, the massive tome he co-authored with Sam Aaron, his friend and wine merchant (whom he jokingly called “the vintner of my discontent”): “The amorous vocabulary wasn’t a metaphor,” she writes. “Aside from books, he loved nothing — and no one — longer, more ardently, or more faithfully than he loved wine.”
But Fadiman’s memoir uncorks much more than a remembrance of drinks past or a daughter’s filial intoxication. By allowing her memories to ripen over the many years since her father’s death in 1999, the result is a superbly evolved, less tannic pour. Organized into what she does best — twenty-three short essays, just shy of two cases — Fadiman tackles some difficult aspects of her legacy. The bitterness she might have felt about, say, her father’s request after he’d gone blind at eighty-eight for her to call two women — who she quickly realized were his lovers — and tell them what had happened has been mellowed by time. The same goes for his “reflexively condescending” sexism. She somewhat evasively calls her parents’ marriage “imperfect but interesting.” One hopes she’ll profile her mother, Annalee Whitmore Jacoby Fadiman, who died in 2002, more thoroughly in another book. Like her daughter, Annalee preferred milkshakes to wine, but unlike her daughter, she gave up her writing career — which included early success as a Hollywood screenwriter and as a rare female reporter in China during WWII — after having children.
Fadiman delves more deeply into her father’s insecurities than into his relationships with women. She deftly traces the anti-Semitism he faced from both within and without, which fueled his social-climbing ambition and workaholism but also contributed to his sense of being an outsider. Born in Brooklyn in 1904 to parents from Minsk and Belarus, he strove early on to distance himself from his lower-middle-class Jewish origins after realizing “that things were run by people who spoke well and who were not Jewish, not poor, and not ugly.” By the time he reached Columbia University, he had developed a vast knowledge of literature, a sharp wit, a plummy “hypercultivated voice,” and an envy and passion for “all things fabricated with skill and effort” — including art, books, foods, and, eventually, wine. Yet, despite his brilliance, he was denied a teaching position, told by Columbia’s English Department head, “We have room for only one Jew, and we have chosen Mr. Trilling.” Fadiman writes that her father never got over it.
The Wine Lover’s Daughter also addresses what Fadiman calls the oakling dilemma — growing up in the shadow of a famous parent who “grabs the sunlight.” Her father, forty-nine when she was born, fortunately lived long enough to appreciate her early books, including her NBCC prizewinner, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down — though not long enough to see her join the faculty of an Ivy League college, his dream. (Fadiman has taught nonfiction writing at Yale since 2005.)
Underpinning Fadiman’s reckoning with her father’s legacy also involves gauging their shared sources of pleasure — including doggerel, word games, and cheese — as well as their differences, most pointedly her love of the outdoors and his love of wine. Despite many humorously recounted attempts, she just can’t — well, swallow it. So, as she’s done before in far-reaching essays about a few of her favorite things — ice cream, coffee, mail — she doggedly investigates further. She goes so far as to consult with scientists at Cornell and Yale who subject her recalcitrant taste buds to various tests. The hilarious quest encapsulates her strengths as a reporter and essayist: persistence, humor, clarity, and intelligence. The upshot: she discovers that her heavily papillated tongue is highly sensitive to sourness and bitterness, which is why mere alcohol doesn’t thrill her at all and radishes hit her “more like a bee-sting than a food.” Vindicated yet disappointed, she comments: “So there it was. I didn’t taste what my father tasted.”
Even Fadiman’s notes on her sources are fascinating. “This book contains no reconstructed or imagined quotations,” she states proudly. She has relied on letters, essays, transcribed interview tapes — plus notes she was taking all along, right down to her father’s last utterances. She says she changed her original title, The Oenophile’s Daughter, when she “discovered that hardly anyone knew how to spell, pronounce, or define ‘oenophile’ ” — and was consoled when she realized that similar problems killed Speak, Mnemosyne, Nabokov’s original title for Speak, Memory. Such are the trials of a highbrow, sesquipedalian vocabulary. But, like her father, Fadiman has that rare ability to wear her erudition lightly. And what he said about wine also applies to The Wine Lover’s Daughter: it is a delectable ode to cultivation and civilization.