For a biographer with the luxury of distance, William Styron—most famously the author of Sophie’s Choice, and a strapping mid-century Southern novelist whose small but powerful oeuvre seems ripe for a revival of interest—is a juicy subject. Styron was a bon vivant, a scene-maker, but also a bad-tempered melancholic, his flow of writing choked by rampant perfectionism, his lifespan cut short by depression-borne illness. For the author of this memoir, Styron is more and less: this is the story of what it’s like growing up with such a character as Daddy.
The younger Styron understandably has major issues concerning her father, and the first half of her memoir is rife with poor-me moments: Styron telling his daughter that her horse will be sent to the glue factory, or calling her a “creep” and a “hateful” “princess” for not performing a chore, or marooning her in a boarding school she describes as Dickensian in its punishments. Although we never get to what feels like the deep truth of the gigantic Styron hurt in these periods—Alexandra writes that in her youth, she “shut down” from her father with a near-autistic fierceness—her last years with her father, who died of pneumonia in 2006, after a messy, ugly 20-year battle with clinical depression, are valiantly and beautifully detailed.
There are, throughout Reading my Father, some pretty scenes of preppy succour in Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard, and a big rolling Rolodex of famous names—Teddy Kennedy, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Roth and Kurt Vonnegut all tinkle their ice cubes in a decades-long succession of highballs. In one scene, Styron describes being a young girl, watching illustrious party guests use the toilet from a hole in her bedroom’s floor. And there is something of that in her memoir: the view is narrow, but it is plentiful in its fascinations.