The best memoirs of recent years reveal “The Way We Live Now” as well as or better than most contemporary fiction. Through telling their personal stories, authors like Mary Karr (The Liars’ Club) and Tobias Wolff (In Pharaoh’s Army) conveyed a deep sense of the times they lived through, the problems and challenges of their situation, using the techniques of fiction–good dialogue, observation of details, dramatic descriptions of crucial scenes. The author’s trials, failures and triumphs provide the plot.
Ted Solotaroff joined the ranks of such artful autobiographers with Truth Comes in Blows, a memoir of childhood and family that won an American PEN award in 1998. Now he has added another volume, First Loves, which picks up where the last one left off, with the author home from naval service in World War II and about to start college on the GI Bill.
First Loves takes place from 1948, when Solotaroff met his first wife, until the breakup of their marriage in 1962. The “loves” of the title refer not only to his courtship, marriage, fatherhood of two sons and eventual divorce but also the love of literature that became his lifework as a teacher, editor, literary journalist and critic. Through writing his intimate experience of each of these loves, Solotaroff conveys a great deal about both marriage and literature during that era.
When one of the partners of a broken marriage writes about it in a memoir, the results are likely to be embarrassing for all concerned–especially for the author giving his or her side of the story. Philip Roth pilloried his deceased first wife (“a hard-up loser”) in his autobiography The Facts, and was in turn castigated by his second wife, Claire Bloom, in her memoir Leaving a Doll’s House. With ironic justice, the two books are offered as a package purchase on Amazon: “Buy Together Today: $27.59.” Read ’em and weep; each creates unintended sympathy for the mate who was poison-penned.
Solotaroff avoids this pitfall by portraying his thirteen-year first marriage with compassion for both the young wife and husband. The portrait is intimate but never demeaning, and the struggles of the couple reflect the marital issues of this transitional era before The Joy of Sex, when the challenges of two-career families were still uncommon. (Ted’s wife, Lynn, won grants to study Russian and eventually became a translator and editor.)
Freud, he writes, “was so much in the air that you seemed to know about him just from breathing,” and the marriage ended when both Ted and Lynn went into therapy to deal with their problems. Both their psychiatrists prescribed an extramarital affair “to make up for the experience we had deprived ourselves of by marrying so young. ‘A little outside sex can go a long way toward satisfying your curiosity and scaling back your illusions,’ was the way [Dr.] Wykstrom put it. [Dr.] McGregor thought that an office affair was one of the better ways to arrange such matters.” After the divorce, Lynn had “a brief, disastrous affair with McGregor and for years contemplated suing him.”
So much for Freudian marriage counseling.
At the University of Michigan, Ted wanted “to be a fiction writer, not a scholar,” but his stories were rejected while his literary essays won prizes and scholarships, and a contest judge saw in his work “a critic in the making.” But Ted was determined to pursue the fiction-writing dream, so instead of accepting a scholarship for graduate school at the University of Chicago, “I persuaded Lynn to go off to New York with me to lead a life that I already had diverse evidence I was not cut out for.” Lynn waitressed and Ted did temp typing and waitered to support his fiction habit, while they lived in a classic bohemian pad: a sixth-floor-walkup cold-water flat on Macdougal Street.