Can We Care About WASPs, Or, A Review of Cheerful Money (Objective, General).


Life is a scavenger hunt run backward as well as forward, a race to comprehend. But with Wasps, the caretakers lock the explanatory sorrows away, then swallow the key. (Cheerful Money)

Cheerful Money:
Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor

By Tad Friend
(Little, Brown; 353 pages; $24.99)

The WASP, or White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, has a place in America’s mythology. Not surprisingly. WASPs were, after all, the source of our first big wave of wealth. We like wealth. We may even love wealth. The question is, while we might feel a prurient curiosity about privilege, do we have any real interest in the WASP story?

The species has been simultaneously stereotyped, ridiculed, and envied, for one reason or another. Again, not surprising. Americans do that to all sorts of cultural species. WASPs, however, have not yet had their brief moment in the blazing sun of the 21st century’s popular culture. No Sopranos, no Angela’s Ashes. It’s hard to make entertainment out of a group that doesn’t believe in displays of wealth, accomplishment, or emotion. It’s hard to write about a group that has a horror of talking too much. And if you are of the group, well then, indeed.

So how can we know what WASPs were if no one says much of anything? “Were” is the operative word. The species is dying out. Richard Ford and John Updike have written novels characterized by trailing, wistful manliness. Scorcese’s Age of Innocence makes an entire movie out of failure to speak. Is that all there is?

Tad Friend, a staff writer at the New Yorker, has decided to say something. His memoir, Cheerful Money, chronicles his life, and the story of his WASP family. He writes two stories, intertwined. One, time-honored, about a boy whose parents don’t show him much outright love, who spends his time looking for that love with girls of various sorts, and finds a happy ending, finally, in marrying. You may remember Mr. Friend as Mr. Latte, from a popular New York Times series where his wife, Amanda Hesser, memorialized their courtship.

The second story is the Dickensian history of many people named Tim. And Theodore, or versions of Theodore. Tad is short for Theodore, as is Ted, as is Dorie, Mr. Friend’s father’s name. (By the way, as is common with WASPs, the Tims and Timmies are girls.) Friend says of his family tree,

I could proceed as a Robinson like Grandma Tim’s family (loquacious, madcap, sometimes unhinged); a Pierson like Grandpa John’s family (bristling with brains); a Holton like Grandma Jess’s family (restless, haughty show ponies); or a Friend like Grandpa Ted’s family (moneyed, clubbable, and timid).

Juicy tidbits of privilege and accomplishment abound. Mr. Friend’s family owns Century House on the South Fork of Long Island,

…in the Georgica Association, an enclave of two dozen houses on the western shore of Georgica Pond that faces houses owned by Steven Spielberg, Martha Stewart, and Calvin Klein on the eastern.

Images of gray shingled houses against a vivid, blue, privileged sky. As he puts it,

When you hail from families that have lived for generations in houses with dumbwaiters and coal scuttles, your birthright includes a staggering heritage of bric-a-brac that has no bearing on modern life – the junk DNA that gets handed down along the the useful genes. Wasp tableware is anything that abhors the dishwasher: gold-rimmed chargers, etched-crystal wineglasses, pedestaled fruit plates, egg spoons of translucent horn.

All this because, in the turn of the century, “…the Friends made enough from steel, coal, and banking to become – briefly – smashingly rich; chauffeur rich, yacht rich, $350,000,000-in-today’s-money rich.” Mr. Friend himself attended Harvard, where he was elected to the Harvard Lampoon and the Signet Society.

But our overarching impression of Mr. Friend’s family history is one of painful complexity, language fraught with anxiety and hanging clauses of regret, along with a family tree that makes it quite simply difficult to figure who is who much of the time. Which Timmy are we talking about? Is Jess male or female? And which wife of which husband is leaving whom for whom?

Luckily, Mr. Friend’s personal history is much more direct, and, while less entertaining in the US Weekly manner, both more moving and more universal.

Mr. Friend’s mother, as mothers will, had her own unsatisfied needs, leaving her unable to bring heart and soul to child-rearing. He understands this early on.

Feeling that I had failed to delight her, I turned into a wary, watchful child. I began building the internal Wasp rheostat, the dimmer switch on desires.

Dimming the light of desire leads to a family distance sorrowful for all. Spaniel Sam provides the only comfort. Mr. Friend’s mother says to him, as she approaches the end of her life,

“We have this beautiful lawn here, perfect for two soccer teams of grandchildren,” she said. “And there aren’t any grandchildren. I’d always thought my children would live nearby, just down the road, and would be over all the time. But everyone lives so far away.”

“And why do you think that is?” I said.

She began to cry. I felt sorry, and guilty, and started crying, too. Sam trotted into the room and looked worriedly back and forth. She gathered him up and wept into his fur.

Neither is Dorie Friend, Mr. Friend’s father, a source of direct talk of love. Upon the breakup of one of his son’s serious relationships, Dorie faxes from Jakarta,

I think you are wise to use time as a resource for whatever it offers that you may wish to choose, including (1) repair toward commitment or (2) easing off to affectionate detachment; or (2) enabling (1) but not, obviously, (1) entropic to (2).

Indeed.

So Mr. Friend enters therapy. Happily, as narration of therapy is often as terrible as the narration of one’s dreams, he writes little of the sessions and more on the outcome. He meets Ms. Hesser, falls in love. Now he can speak. Which he does, proposing marriage.

I led Amanda down an empty hallway behind the bar. The passage was damp and chilly, her two least favorite qualities, but she followed calmly, thinking I was positioning us by the kitchen for hot hors d’oeuvres (one of my moves). She looked astonished when I swung her around with my hand on the small of her back, as if to music, and said, “I’ve been thinking…” – which wasn’t true. My thinking cap was off. When she said, “Yes!” the future compacted to her ear, pink with excitement, and her sheltering lock of hair.

Cheerful Money is about the inability to speak, to speak love in particular. Fittingly, it is Mr. Friend’s writing that makes his book worth reading, in the end, invokes our feelings, and leaves us to carry his experience forward when we finally put the book down. He writes, of his grandmother’s funeral. “The thunk of earth and skitter of pebbles beading down the coffin sides, the finality of it.” We might be interested in WASP artifacts, old lace, ivory, silver, but we listen and feel for the universal. For families, and love, and loss.

The true WASP, while in this day and age prepared at least to acknowledge – maybe even voice – deep feelings, never stays long in the land of full-throated sentiment. Irony, tragedy whispered between teeth, requirements of appropriate behavior and speech at all times. Mr. Friend, despite his hunt for love and truth, is, after all, a WASP. He keeps the mushy stuff just this side of poignant, as you would expect in a culture that so values propriety. As he says, “Extraordinary oddities of conduct are tolerated among Wasps so long as you show up for Christmas.” Maybe even the oddity of a confessional memoir.

For most, the story of our background is just that. Background. We lead our real lives with our families. All our loved ones. Freud trumps Marx, day to day. In the end, Mr. Friend’s book engages us and moves us largely because he turns out pretty happy. And writes about both his distress and his happiness in an achingly beautiful style, finding a way, in the last, through the ellipses of WASP-talk. We might wish, from time to time, that Mr. Friend and his family had been able to speak more directly, fewer characters, fewer complexities, fewer clauses. But then, so might he.

*Note. My blog friends may wonder where I went. This is me writing. I wrote Tad Friend and asked to review this book. He was very gracious and agreed. Tomorrow, however, I will tell you my reaction as me, rather than as a book reviewer. I hope that is appropriate. Being a WASP and all. Image by me.

20 Comments

  • 09/23/09
    5:37 am

    Reply

    Duchesse said...

    Reading your review, I thought of my Chinese friends from "good families". The similarities are startling: they were taught to avoid the discussion of feelings or showing of strong sentiment, to respect their elders, to be conscious of family image and what others would think (but inside their circle, all sorts of behaviour was tolerated), and to participate in dynasty-consolidating marriages. One of the things I notice about high WASP culture is its insularity, its lack of awareness that other subcultures have very similar norms.

    My first husband was a member of Winston Churchill's family, which formed some of my impressions.

  • 09/23/09
    5:51 am

    Reply

    City Girl said...

    I read Amanda Hesser's Mr. Latte book a few years ago (oddly the book was more interesting to me than the columns) and I remember wondering about Tad/Mr. Latte – Amanda Hesser's book gave just enough information to know that he was from a WASP family, and also enough information there had been/was some enormous emotional pain in Tad's life, as is evidenced by some of Tad's interactions with her. But I did not know for sure until reading your review that pain+WASP family were definitely interconnected. Thank you for a great review :)

  • 09/23/09
    6:00 am

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    mint juleps and magnolias said...

    How interesting!

  • 09/23/09
    6:21 am

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    Princess Freckles said...

    Beautiful review! I had recently heard about this book. I think I'll hunt it down here at the library.

  • 09/23/09
    8:01 am

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    Couture Carrie said...

    Fab review, darling!

    xoxox,
    CC

  • 09/23/09
    8:07 am

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    La Belette Rouge said...

    Congratulations on your first book review! Really well done. You have inspired me to add this book to my list.
    xoxo

  • 09/23/09
    8:12 am

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    Buckeroomama said...

    Velly intellesting, as PW and a few people over here have been known to say. …as is Duchesse's comment about the similarities of her Chinese friends from "good families." That bears more expounding, but I am of no inclination to dissect that at the moment.

  • 09/23/09
    8:46 am

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    LPC said...

    Thanks all. The book is just now orderable from Amazon, so I don't know if it will have shown up in libraries yet. Princess, you're the one to tell us. And interestingly, I did not really know I had a High WASP heritage until I began to work with my Chinese colleagues. Not to say I didn't know who my family was, just that I did not understand what about mine was different or similar from other cultures until I got to know the Chinese-American story from those who lived it.

  • 09/23/09
    10:57 am

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    Maureen@IslandRoar said...

    This is a great book review. I'm not surprised you have quite a talent for it.
    "We might be interested in WASP artifacts….but we listen and feel for the universal."
    Isn't that true for most of what we're drawn to? I think it's a big part of why I love your blog (aside from your marvelous writing, of course).
    Looking forward to your personal reaction tomorrow.

  • 09/23/09
    11:42 am

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    indigo said...

    i totally knew it was you. this book review was as insightful and thought provoking as your usual posts, and, reading this, i was struck more than once by your *generosity* as a writer, and not for the first time. you have this amazing ability to take the reader by the hand and guide them through your narrative without patronising in the least. you know i rate you highly, but just wanted to say this. anyway.

  • 09/23/09
    11:53 am

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    Mardel said...

    The book sounds interesting and I would like to read it.

    Oddly enough, although I know my family and its history, and knew that my heritage was of the WASP variety, I did not really think about or realize how heavy the influence was until I married and dealt with my husband's very rigid German Jewish family and again when I started reading your blog. It seems that WASP heritage has very long arms, even when supposedly rejected.

  • 09/23/09
    11:56 am

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    Sher said...

    My family history? Dirt poor. Can't relate. But an excellent book review :)

  • 09/23/09
    2:01 pm

    Reply

    QueenBeeSwain said...

    can't wait to see what "you" have to say, loved this review- will have to pick this up, sounds an awful lot like my background!

    PS- saw a license plate with "LPC" on it yesterday and had a moment for you ;)

    xoox

    kHm

  • 09/23/09
    3:02 pm

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    miss cavendish said...

    I half planned to read this book until I read Tad Friend's article in Vogue this month about chasing ex-girlfriends to find out what they had thought of him. It was, to my mind, derivative of the film "Broken Flowers" and self-indulgent, especially when he worked his annoyed wife into a cliche. When I calm down I do think I'll give the book itself a try, and hope that there are no chapters about ex-girlfriends in it. (Though there probably is at least one!) Am looking forward to reading "you" on the book tomorrow!

  • 09/23/09
    7:19 pm

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    SLynnRo said...

    I saw this in Vogue and totally wanted to read it.

  • 09/23/09
    7:27 pm

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    Lipstick said...

    I immensely enjoyed your review. I think I will have to read this book and just make little notes in the margins to figure out who all the characters are. I was sold reading about the dishes that "abhor the dishwasher." What a nice metaphor for an old way of life and lifestyle that in some ways abhors newer ways of thinking/doing business/networking, etc.

  • 09/24/09
    10:34 am

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    Liz said...

    Argh! He went chasing ex-girlfriends? That sounds more like someone facing the end of life, for some reason. Hmmmm, that makes me less inclined to pick this up. I recently read a review for another memoir ("Approaching Neverland"), which has to do with family tragedy and how it impacts the family and the people within it, and that sounds very interesting. And I have to offer a suggestion for Replacement Child by Judy Mandel, which also is a memoir on how tragedy shapes a family. It's riveting — the author's sister is killed when a plane crashes into the family home (another sister is burned), and the book's theme is self-discovery, recovery and hope. The plane crash is presented throughout the book, which I really like.

  • 09/24/09
    4:24 pm

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    the Preppy Princess said...

    This goes in your Top Ten Miss WASP, it truly does. And now we'll have to read the book, if only because of Mr. Friend's description of WASP tableware. Amazing.

    May your Friday be better-than-fabulous,
    tp

  • 10/02/09
    5:14 pm

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    Anonymous said...

    A splendidly written review. I went to boarding school with Mr. Friend's sister, whose name is — you guessed it — "Timmie". We had mutual friends (no way around using that word) and played on the squash team together. I am a mutt in terms of heritage, with strong WASP lines that got diluted. I have to say I'm grateful for my mixed genes, having met an inordinate number of northern WASPs at school who came from dysfunctional families. (I wasn't aware of the word "dysfunctional" when at boarding school, but it's certainly the right term.)I'm glad that Mr. Friend has found happiness. I hear that his sister has, too — hallelujah! Good riddance to the emotionally sterile WASP family. I deeply regret, however, the passing of a culture that recognized the line of demarcation between the public and private domains and that spurned the spotlight and ostentation. "Shabby gentility" is something worth preserving.

  • 10/03/09
    7:57 am

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    LPC said...

    I concur. I am glad to see the WASP culture of chilly relationships disappear. But the code of conduct – show up on time, honor your promises, never show off – that I would hope we can preserve. I'm very glad you liked the review.

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