Growing up Italian American in the 1950s and observing the women around her, DeSalvo became keenly aware of the severely limited opportunities available to women generally. Determined not to live a life like her mother's, filled with frustration, depression, and fear, she turned to literature and education for solace and direction. This memoir traces DeSalvo's struggle to become a woman independent in her own right and eventually a professor at Hunter College and author of the biographical study Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work (LJ 2/1/90), among other books. DiSalvo conveys her experiences with wit, style, and creativity yet permits the pathos of her life to surface occasionally, for example when she describes her attempts to deal with her mother's death and her sister's suicide. Writing and research provide the focus and stability in her life, relieving an ever-hovering tendency toward depression and illness. Her story will inspire all women faced with making choices in today's dizzying atmosphere.Nancy Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
A biographer and literary critic's memoir of growing up in Hoboken, N.J., in a claustrophobic Italian-American family.
DeSalvo (English/Hunter College; Conceived with Malice, 1994, etc.) was the first member of her working-class family to graduate from college. She escaped a stultifying home lifedepressed and agoraphobic mother, belligerent and rigid fatherthrough books, movies, study, and boys, boys, boys. She became a Virginia Woolf scholar, writing in her controversial 1989 study about the impact of childhood sexual abuse on Woolf's work. The effort to come to grips with the lingering mental strain caused by her mother's death, her sister's suicide, her memory of childhood traumas of her ownplus the intense, consuming life of an academic writereventually compelled her to write about her own life in an effort to "to give it some shape, some order." The result is an extremely readable bookif not necessarily a lovable one. DeSalvo's prose is plain; her tone often cool. We gain insight into her life and her mother's lifebut not her dead sister's. New Jersey of the 1950s is vividly evoked, but DeSalvo's present situation as teacher, wife, and mother is less vivid. Among the book's best elements: a list of her mother's punitive and pathetic attempts at cookingfrom liver, heart, and snails to head cheese, eels, and octupus. Vertigo's main failing is a lack of continuity; there is a grab-bag feeling to some of the reminiscences, and sometimes topics are misleadingly highlighteda chapter called "Anorexia," for example, is not about the anorexia of the author or anyone close to her, but rather about anorexia in general, and the effect is that of DeSalvo's trying to touch all possible feminist bases.
Strangely cool, ultimately more successful as cultural history than psychological memoir, DeSalvo's book is nevertheless gripping in its parade of detail and profusion of stories about how "a working-class Italian girl became a critic and writer."