My First Cousin Once Removed: Money, Madness, and the Family of Robert Lowell

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9780060930363: My First Cousin Once Removed: Money, Madness, and the Family of Robert Lowell

The art of being truly funny is an undervalued one in these angst-ridden times, but it is an ability that acclaimed novelist Sarah Payne Stuart has in abundance. Her talents have never been on more glorious display than in My First Cousin Once Removed, a memoir--at once hilarious, personal and sad--of her extraordinary Boston Brahmin family, whose most famous member is the legendary poet Robert Lowell, the author's first cousin (once removed).

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Review:

The "first cousin" of this compelling, disconcertingly funny memoir is Robert Lowell--scion of two old New England families (the Winslows, his mother's side, go back even further than the Lowells), widely considered America's greatest poet during the 1960s, anti-Vietnam war activist, and incurable manic depressive. Lowell has been biographied before, notably by Ian Hamilton and Paul Mariani, but no other "life study" contains a particle of the intimacy, fondness, dismay, and above all humor that Sarah Payne Stuart brings to the subject. Stuart places "Bobby" in a loose-knit Winslow family tapestry, and reveals the back of the tapestry: the droll stories about Lowell's icy, chic mother and eccentric, rich Aunt Sarah, who disinherited him when he fathered a child out of wedlock; the excruciating holidays and bizarre Brahmin rituals; the family's mix of provincial pride and bruising disdain for their famous relation, "the king of conflicts."

As fresh and smart as the Lowell material is, the book really catches fire when Stuart tells her own immediate family's story: the two-year breakdown her beautiful mother suffered after giving birth to a daughter; the manic depression that nearly destroyed her brilliant brother, Johnny; the bad luck, blindness, and sheer selfishness that kept her branch perpetually strapped. Stuart has a satirist's eye, a standup comic's sense of timing, and fabulous material. And in My First Cousin Once Removed she makes the most of all of them. --David Laskin

From the Back Cover:

The art of being truly funny is an undervalued one in these angst-ridden times, but it is an ability that acclaimed novelist Sarah Payne Stuart has in abundance. Her talents have never been on more glorious display than in "My First Cousin Once Removed," a memoir--at once hilarious, personal and sad--of her extraordinary Boston Brahmin family, whose most famous member is the legendary poet Robert Lowell, the author's first cousin (once removed).

Sarah Payne Stuart grew up in a family of aristocratic lineage whose fortune had long ago been lost. (Among the many family documents cited is a Boston Globe article in which Lowell's bankrupt grandfather is quoted in his will as having left his children their good breeding and Boston heritage.) Stuart's upbringing carried with it a heady sense of privilege and entitlement, but without the money to back it up. This dichotomy--of being both anointed and strapped, of needing to keep up a brave front at all costs, even when members of successive generations of the family (including the author's brother and famous cousin) find themselves locked up in mental wards--forms the heart of this story. An irreverent and clear-sighted mediation on the claustrophobic yet seductive bonds of family, as well as an intimate portrait of a famous man, "My First Cousin Once Removed" is a wry and haunting story of survival in the midst of instability and dynastic decline.

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