Even a few days after I’ve finished Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club: A Memoir, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’m not even sure if I liked it or not. But with a book like this, of a woman’s difficult, hardscrabble childhood in Texas and Colorado, “liking it” probably isn’t the point.
Full disclosure: I haven’t read many memoirs. I just naturally tend not to gravitate towards them. So this is a review by a relative newbie to the genre.
Here’s the summary, from Amazon:
In this funny, razor-edged memoir, Mary Karr, a prize-winning poet and critic, looks back at her upbringing in a swampy East Texas refinery town with a volatile, defiantly loving family. She recalls her painter mother, seven times married, whose outlaw spirit could tip into psychosis; a fist-swinging father who spun tales with his cronies–dubbed the Liars’ Club; and a neighborhood rape when she was eight. An inheritance was squandered, endless bottles emptied, and guns leveled at the deserving and undeserving. With a raw authenticity stripped of self-pity and a poet’s eye for the lyrical detail, Karr shows us a “terrific family of liars and drunks … redeemed by a slow unearthing of truth.”
The Liars’ Club is a hard read. I’m kind of baffled by people who described this book as “funny” or “entertaining.” I love funny stuff (The Hangover! 30 Rock! David Sedaris!) but I had a hard time finding any humor, even black humor, in this book. The tone was dry, straightforward, and journalistic, for the most part, and considering this childhood was like a warzone, it fit. The descriptions of how tough sister Lecia is, or what a crybaby Karr herself is, were sort of cute, but also highlighted for me how alone these kids were. It is interesting to get an in-depth look at a different type of childhood, and people probably like reading about something that they’re NOT able to relate to. That’s primarily why I kept reading it. That, and the hope that somehow, magically, Karr’s parents would shape up and life for her and her sister would improve. (Spoiler: it doesn’t.)
Something that surprised me was that Karr seemingly didn’t have any bitterness towards her mother. (Keep in mind, this is an emotionally unstable woman who was married seven times, drank herself silly, and burned all of her family’s possessions on the lawn.) Then I remembered that the majority of the book covers Karr from ages three to eight or nine, and doesn’t tend to delve too deeply past what a kid would have thought. I mean, when you’re little, you think your parents are infallible! I learned that Karr also wrote a memoir of her teenage/young adult years (Cherry), as well as her adult life (Lit), and starting thinking that maybe all three should have been combined into one book. Having so much space dedicated to such a short period of time was…too much.
And there are a few moments when I actually heard the screeching of rubber as my mind put the brakes on and said YIKES. Both of the sexual assaults, for example, and especially the second. How awful her life was almost becomes farcical.
If you’re sensitive to issues of child neglect, childhood sexual abuse, and alcoholism, there is no way in hell I would recommend this book to you. But if you’re interested in the answer to the question, “What if I were born to an alcoholic and an alcoholic/manic-depressive in a Texas oil town in the ’50s?”, then you’ll like The Liars’ Club. (And apparently, many people have–it was a New York Times Bestseller for over a year.)
Bookwanderer Rating: Two and a half stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: Think your childhood was bad? Wait ’til you get a load of this…