‘Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town” is Sarah Payne Stuart’s second memoir. It comes 18 years after “My First Cousin Once Removed,” which dwelt on the strain of lunacy running through her old New England family, among whose members was Robert Lowell. The present installment is a wry account of Stuart’s return, now with husband and children, to Concord, Mass., the scene of at least part of her youth. She wanted, she says, “to give my children the childhood I thought I’d had,” as well as to improve on her parents’ parenting and impress them in doing so — goals that fall short, often ludicrously, of achievement.
As she proceeds, Stuart splices in her views on Louisa May Alcott and her unenviable lot in having that feckless windbag Bronson Alcott as a father. She also takes up Concord’s other Transcendentalist big bugs, Ralph Emerson (good looking and ruthless in money matters), Henry David Thoreau (never fed his guests and burned down half the Concord woods) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (couldn’t stand living next to gabby B. Alcott). Along with all that, Stuart brings us through her overextended real estate purchases, her inadequacies as a community-involved parent, her relationship with her parents and children, and the changing character of Concord itself, chiefly represented by the arrival of newly wealthy couples building grotesquely outsized houses.
There is something of the desperate concoction in this mixture of ingredients, but it is redeemed by Stuart’s sense of humor, not least about her own failings — as when, for instance, sign-up sheets for parent volunteers are passed around and “a migraine hits me between the eyes like a bullet,” and “I long for an ambulance to take me away, to be rolled through the crowd on a soft gurney.” Excellently entertaining, too, are her tart descriptions of the plain-Jane snobbery of this oldest of America’s towns, personified in its “ferociously frill-less women,” the “matrons of steel, born and bred to outlast the men who once found something to marry them for … mending their swimsuits, buying gingerly at the A&P, holding up the bank line with their satchels of rolled pennies, attacking their lawns with broken bamboo rakes.”
Stuart learns, as most of us do, that one can never return to the past or make it anew — no matter, in her case, how many unaffordable old houses one goes into debt for. She realizes that she’s been “homesick from birth,” the result of having been moved from relation to relation during the years her mother was in a mental hospital. Stuart’s attempts to reshape the past do, however, demonstrate the tonic value of humor.
Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle and is the editor of “Suitable Accommodations: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963.”