Anne Roiphe presents her childhood

May 02, 1999|By Pia Nordlinger | By Pia Nordlinger,Special to the Sun

"1185 Park Avenue, A Memoir," by Anne Roiphe. Free Press. 257 pages. $25.

Anne Roiphe has long relied on her own corner of the world for book material. In 1992, she published a novel in which the foibles and mishaps of her relatives figure promenantly -- much to their embarrassment. In 1996, she penned "Fruitful," an attempt to reconcile feminism with motherhood based almost entirely on her own anecdotes as a child, a mother and a feminist.

Now comes her memoir: "1185 Park Avenue." The New York address is that of her childhood home, which suggests that this is not a story of hardship. And yet, Roiphe's coming of age is far from trouble-free. Her chain-smoking mother played canasta with a high ball in hand while a governess minded the children.

Her ultra-vain father was just a hair away from deadbeat-dad status. Her brother was frail, but brilliant, and therefore a thorn in her side.

The memoir clips along from the author's infancy to the present day, detailing a great many personal relationships. Roiphie, born in 1935, grows up in a New York whose immigrants want nothing more than to assimilate. Her Jewish family is virtually running from its culture -- the Holocaust too fresh, ethnicity too bold -- and the young Anne, unlike her brother, is happy to go along with the American program.

"1185 Park Avenue" includes little talk of the politics that have shaped Roiphe's public life, namely feminism. This impressionist memoir certainly does not require a full treatment of her political development, but Roiphe is a noted feminist -- the sort that believes the personal is political. So are we to assume that the few political thoughts included in the book are allusions to her support of homosexuality and opposition to anti-communism.

Feminism, though, only vaguely lurks behind the descriptions of what was expected of or forbidden to women before the 1960s.

Understandably, Roiphe has put politics aside to tell the story of a family. And readers who understand that families are not easy will identify with it. Family life brings tensions that linger for decades. There are parents we seek to impress and siblings we abhor only to spend later years pursuing their friendship, if not forgiveness. Given her kin, Roiphe taps this vein with ease.

Not to be overlooked is the fact that her book imparts the rhythm of childhood in Manhattan, a subject that can be of a great fascination to those of us who grew up in, say, a house.

With "1185 Park Avenue," Roiphe delivers a touching narrative and some clever observations, as in this passage where she describes a man whose judgeship was bought by his father-in-law: "As the years passed he became more and more of a shadow, a man who loved America and knew the Constitution but who inside his own house was treated by his wife and his son as an old somewhat ragged tablecoth on which the family ate its noncompany meals."

But such writing is altogether too infrequent. The book ultimately becomes tiresome, especially with Roiphe's reliance on simple, present-tense sentences that are meant to suggest a child's thought process.

After drawing on her family anecdotes so many times, Anne Roiphe surely could have carried this memoir off with more finess.

Pia Nordlinger is an editorial writer at the New York Post. Her work has appeared in The Baltimore Sun, the Weekly Standard, the Washington Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Orlando Sentinel, and the on-line magazine Squire.

Pub Date: 05/02/99

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