My beach reads this year may be unconventional, but not as unconventional as the childhoods experienced by those of authors Alysia Abbott (Fairyland: a Memoir of My Father and Alexandra Aldrich (The Astor Orphan). These are the stories of two resilient women who come from impoverished yet colorful backgrounds rich in culture.
When two-year-old Abbott’s mother is killed in a car accident, her father moves her to San Francisco where he lives an openly gay life and introduces her to the arts scene of the 1970s and 1980s. As a poet and publisher, Steve never earns much and struggles with addiction, bad relationships, and the demands of single parenthood. Alysia attends poetry readings and parties instead of playgroups and preschool. The only structure in the young girl’s life is provided by her grandparents during summers in suburban Illinois. Her grandparents also foot the bill for Alysia to attend a private French school which prepares her for future academic sojourns in Paris. Her unusual upbringing causes Alysia to become self-reliant and adventurous. Her steely sense of self-preservation and her honest portrayal of her much loved, flawed father are heartrending, particularly through his decline and death as a victim of AIDS.
As a direct descendant of the Astor Dynasty, the squalor in which Aldrich grows up is astonishing. Aldrich’s father, Richard attended the finest schools in the country, was a graduate of Harvard, but never trained to earn a living as was the custom of the wealthy of that era who relied on trusts. But there is no inheritance remaining for Richard, so he becomes the de facto caretaker and handyman for the rundown Rokeby mansion and estate which was inherited by his mother who lives in a smaller house on the grounds. Alexandra’s mother is a Polish emigre whom her father met post Harvard and brought back to live in the crumbling Rokeby. A tempestuous artist, she has little interest in mothering her daughter and actively blames her husband for their desperate lifestyle. Alexandra often turns to her grandmother for meals or to the aunt who shares the mansion but whose living space is much better appointed than her own family’s. Alexandra encounters a series of eccentric borders and strays collected by her father and put up in the mansion or in buildings on the grounds. Along with the hand-me-down clothes and TV dinner rejects from a local factory, there were parades and performance extravaganzas, art and hippies and violin lessons. Like Alysia, Alexandra develops self-reliance and discipline, along with the realization that her future is in her own hands.