THERE ARE SO MANY things I want to ask Phyllis Theroux. What were your 14 years of marriage like? What do you mean, he didn't love you? I want to reach out and shake her by the neat lapels of her convent school uniform blazer. Isn't there more about your father? What did he really want from Tina, the redhead who almost killed him by dancing the Can Can on the wall outside his hospital window after his heart attack? Tell me your secrets!
I know she could tell me. With her astonishing memory, her perfectly focused eye for detail and her command of dialogue, Theroux can draw character and situation in a few sure strokes that always make everything clear, and often make you laugh to boot. But I know she won't. Because Phyllis Theroux is an old-fashioned girl, and this funny, fascinating, maddeningly civilized book about her family and her coming of age is really an old-fashioned sort of book, harking back to the traditions of demure gentlewomen in crinolines sitting down at their escritories to pen their memoirs.
"There is much to be criticized, but I don't have the taste for it," Theroux writes after describing an incident of personal cruelty inflicted on another girl by the nuns at the Dominican Convent School she attended for six years in San Rafael, California. She's not kidding. But what she lacks in critical analysis, she more than makes up for in wit, charm and her perfect little summations of complex experience. "The nuns spent long hours in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament exposed," she writes, "but the incense did not addle their understanding. On the one hand, everything was in God's hands. On the other hand, they censored our mail."
Phyllis Theroux grew up in the eccentric, shabby gentility of a "good" California family. The Grissims (Theroux is the author's married name) started in an apartment on Clay Street in San Francisco, and have since scattered down the coast to Carmel. Her parents are separated now; her sister Wendy is a television anchorwoman working to support her two habits, piano and therapy; the beautiful Cindy is "trying to be mellow"; John is a writer who lives in a remodeled wine barrel at Stinson Beach; shy, funny Peter hustles liquor orders for a store near Carmel; Tony still sleeps with his baby blanket, and Phyllis is a successful single journalist with three children who lives in Washington, D.C. Added to these characters, and described even more vividly, are the assortment of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who lived four blocks away at 36 Presidio Terrace while Phyllis was growing up. (Timothy Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis, is one of these cousins.)
Theroux's education -- the Dominican Convent, then Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, Moral Re-armament Camp and a year as a Catholic extension volunteer in Norman, Oklahoma after college -- should have been enough to turn the naughtiest child in California into an insufferable goody-two-shoes. But Theroux seems to have escaped with her sense of humor intact. Furthermore her experience of living on both the East and West Coasts provokes some of her best descriptions. "San Franciso where I used to stuff my gum wrappers into the hedges after a trip to the dentist is different. A second row of teeth has sprouted behind the originals in the skyline. The streets seem full of homosexual waiters. There is a cuteness about the city, a manic decorator look that hasn't missed an alley. And where San Francisco once rode the coastline like a quiet lady in a white dress, she is shot full of hormones now, a divorcee in the process of running away with her act."
In many ways Theroux and her family are indeed unusual. Phyllis adores both her parents and loves all five of her brothers and sisters without reservation. She grew up in a circle of family and friends who loved and cared for one another, and who almost always kept one another's feelings uppermost in their hearts and minds. No mean feat. And Theroux was blessed with a lot of good luck. Not only did her grandmother care enough to talk the nuns into giving her a scholarship at Dominican although the Grissims were not Catholic, but after her first year at Manhattanville, when her father could no longer afford to supplement her scholarship, a generous upperclass-woman donated the $3,000 she needed to stay on. Perhaps because of all this, Theroux has a self-effacing sense of mischief and a sunny disposition that make her storytelling fun to read. You'll like her. Whether she's describing a weekend she spent as a house guest in a Naugatuck, Connecticut, funeral home in order to get to the Harvard-Yale game, or the fluttering of her mother's hands, or some cockleweeds she used to see transformed by the early morning light at her Aunt Marion Collins' ranch, Pasatiempo, in the summer, she is a sprightly and amusing guide.
Near the end of the book, in describing her parents' efforts to make a living after her father was fired from the family fruit-drying business, Theroux mentions an invention of her mother's that she hoped -- although her father never had the same faith in it -- might rival the popularity of the pet rock. A small, fuzzy circle of cloth which could be sewn or glued on, it was to be called the Pat Me and would serve as an invitation. After you finish this book, savoring each family anecdote and treasure that Theroux reveals, you want to reach out and do just that.