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Suzanne Berne's "Missing Lucile," reviewed by Carolyn See

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By Carolyn See
Friday, October 15, 2010

MISSING LUCILE

Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew

By Suzanne Berne

Algonquin. 296 pp. $23.95

Here's the back story of "Missing Lucile": Suzanne Berne's great-grandfather was B.H. Kroger, the Cincinnati grocery magnate who once owned a zillion grocery stores all across the Midwest. "He shouted," Berne writes, "he swore, he insulted with breathtaking dexterity." B.H.'s first wife died after rapidly having borne him seven children. He was Mr. Nouveau Riche, rough, tough and uneducated, but you couldn't argue with the fact of his money.

His children would make do in different ways. Suzanne's grandmother, Lucile, went to Wellesley College, came home during World War I and became treasurer of the Kroger company, as well as her father's private secretary. Then, when the war ended, she had to give her job back. She joined a rescue unit organized by Wellesley that journeyed to a small, war-torn village in France. She spent almost a year teaching mothers how to be good parents and little children how to play games. When that mission folded, Lucile went back to Cincinnati to live in her father's house. She was over 30. She spotted a genteel, refined but poor German baritone, and they were married within two months. She built a beautiful house (with her father's money), had two darling little boys of her own and died at the age of 43, of stomach cancer, in 1932.

But here is the plot point in all this: Lucile was evidently not a very good mother. Suzanne's father got it into his head early on that his mother never loved him. "He has always been sad," Berne writes. "Melancholy. Inconsolable. A man who is missing something." Because not only did Lucile die when Berne's father was 6, she had been remote and cold when she was alive. She never smiled at him, which gave him a justifiable case of the sulks for the rest of his life.

The author, upon whom all this sulking impinged, decided to conjure up this missing mother for him. A novelist who teaches at Boston College, she really put her heart into this enterprise, except for when she didn't, which results in an infuriatingly uneven biography.

Thus: The emblematic moment in her father's childhood, as Berne recounts it. While his mother was working in the garden, "he was eating little red cinnamon candies, Red Hearts, as they were called then, and still are, I believe. At some point she . . . asked him if she could have a few of the candies. He said no. She looked at him closely, then asked if he really couldn't give a Red Heart to his mother. He shook his head." Then, the author speculates and lets her imagination run charmingly, as she is wont to do in this narrative: "I only wish he had been eating peppermints. But such is the tenacity of metaphor: this memory wouldn't persist, most likely, if my father hadn't been hoarding Red Hearts. As for my grandmother, the bulbs she was planting were surely narcissus." Most people who have ever bought candy at the movies or decided to make cinnamon apple sauce will suspect these candies were cinnamon Red Hots, made by the Ferrara Pan company beginning in 1932, which would make factual sense, but Berne seems unwilling to investigate this -- or much else -- further.

The author obtains much of her information about the Kroger family from a coffee-table book called "The Kroger Story," published in 1973. "I bought it," she writes, "off Amazon.com for twelve dollars." About an early ancestor in the mid-19th century, she says, after imagining that his parents lived in poverty: "The mother sits tiredly at her spinning wheel with a hank of tallowy grayish wool while the father puts on his green felt hat with the little red feather and trudges over to the Rathaus to hear the latest bad news."

One might wish that the author didn't rely so heavily on a book that was probably commissioned for publicity by the Kroger company decades ago. But Berne appears to blossom most when she has the least material to work with. That's how she gets to bring in Harry Thaw, Benjamin Harrison, Mark Twain, Alice Longworth and others. During Lucile's high school years, about which there is the least available information, Berne decides that Lucile went to two different boarding schools in Washington, because their names appear in a copy of a book she had, even though Lucile's Wellesley College transcript says she went to "the College Preparatory School for Girls in Cincinnati." No, Berne says, "let's just say she went to high school in Washington. I myself went to high school in Washington and I don't remember it very well either." Besides, this way we get to hear about Alice Roosevelt: "Alice was nineteen and preparing to marry Ohio representative Nicholas Longworth, from Cincinnati. Longworth was thirty-three. A famous roué who played the violin, swilled whiskey, ran after women, and could charm even the most bumptious crowd of voters."

I'm not sure how much this tale tells us about Lucile. But perhaps it tells us something about the author. Remembering the famous Alice Longworth quip "If you can't say anything good about someone, sit right here by me," Berne suggests her own motto might be: "If you don't know what you're talking about, have a seat." She said it, I didn't.


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