A buckley memoir: Free of fantasy, and sad

January 14, 1996|By Anita Finkel | Anita Finkel,Special to the Sun

"At the Still Point: A Memoir," by Carol Buckley. Simon & Schuster. 255 pages. $23

JTC This book - which it's hard to resist calling a "little book" - embodies some better aspects of what could be called "women's reading" in the mid-1990s. What might once have been turned into escapist romance on a dude ranch or sex-and-power adventuring over mid-day martinis, la Rona Jaffe, today a calm look back by a woman at mid-life: twice married, twice divorced, self-supporting, children grown, aware of family dysfunction and, in the case of "At the Still Point," "at peace" with it.

In her mid-50s, Carol Buckley has written an autobiography from the perspective of the self-discovery, human potential movement and produced an account that is even-tempered, sweet-spirited, every way culturally correct, and soothingly recovered. She is codependent no more. She is free of the fantasy bond. She's accepted the things she cannot change. Millions of women who have also identified with the writings of our better self-help authors will love "At the Still Point" much as they loved, for example, Charlotte Kasl's "Women, Sex, and Addiction," which covers the same terrain and carries the same message: everything can be faced, everything can be resolved, and virtue lies in learning to forgive and understand everything and everyone.

Ms. Buckley's story has a corona of interest that makes it somewhat broader. She is one of the prominent, oil-rich Buckleys, the sprawling creative and political clan that exists as a kind of conservative mirror-image of the Kennedys - prolific, impossibly high-achieving, a slice of exotic American aristocracy. Carol is the youngest sister of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. - there were 10 children in all - and sister of former U.S. Senator James Buckley. Unquestionably she has a touch of the family literary gift; "At the Still Point" attains elegance and liveliness in places. Descriptions of the era when Ms. Buckley lived as a wealthy Park Avenue chatelaine (with husband No. 2, who collected art and "slipped ... a satiric David Salle ... onto our bedroom wall - a Mickey Mouse leering at a nude female") are - there is no other word for it - delicious.

On the other hand, the family's political position receives a kind of puzzled, bewildered lip service - Ms. Buckley seems to have no idea of what a conservative political philosophy might be, other than a shared family identity. It's as if they were circus folk or a big family of ballet dancers from Moscow. The reader can be forgiven if she closes the book convinced that Carol Buckley voted for the Clintons in 1992.

One point clearly made - that explains, perhaps, how Carol got left out of the political heart of the family - is what it's like to be the youngest of 10 children. It's lonely being the last - 17 years younger than the oldest sibling, racketing around in huge estates, raised by servants and apparently unrecognized by college-attending big brothers and sisters. But Ms. Buckley overcame the trauma. She's not angry, only a little sad. The book is a little too good to be true; I didn't believe some of its moralizing, and the author's "alcoholism" emerges as pure addiction-of-the-week material, but I came away knowing some interesting things about the Buckleys and convinced that Carol

herself must be a very nice person.

Anita Finkel is associate editor of Collier's Encyclopedia and editor and publisher of the New Dance Review, She has worked for Ballet News, Barron's and Charles Scribner's Sons.

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