Watkins scorned her mother for any number of reasons. She had, for example, small feet that had been crammed for so long into very high-heeled shoes that she had trouble walking flat on the ground. She began to grow a double chin and refused to get it taken care of. By the time the war was over, she had earned the cold disdain of her husband for having had a hysterectomy; she would be unable to have a son to carry on his family name.
Meanwhile, as civil rights disturbances began to brew, Watkins developed a strong case of familial claustrophobia. Like so many almost-grown children, she found her family wanting in every respect. Her father was turning into a bigot; her mother drank too much; her sister was disturbed. In the 1950s, after two years at college, realizing she had nothing in her future except a job as a secretary, she took the classic route and married to get out of her house, finding a nice man who didn’t know how to make love and with whom she couldn’t share a thought.
Watkins was devastatingly unhappy, though her mother had spent hours making her an extravagant wedding dress and the wedding was a spectacular pageant. She managed to have four children before she was 30, employed some of the black help who had worked for her aunt, served on the Junior League and had terrible arguments with her racist dad and the rest of the family, who came to think of her as a commie pinko. (How strange that even these recent words should have faded so quickly from our language and our collective memory.)
Then a handsome civil rights lawyer sailed into town in a Triumph convertible. The story takes a dramatic twist.
“I didn’t let myself look at how bad I was,” she writes. “That’s how dumb, numb, and scared I was. I got those green velvet drapes from Tara for my wedding, and I had turned into Scarlett. I would worry about everything tomorrow.”
So this is a tale, first, of an enchanted childhood, then a murky drama of marriage and adultery, all played out against a background of bitter American struggle. I found it splendid in every way.
See regularly reviews books for The Post.