“My mother killed herself on the first day of spring.” That’s the first line of Hesper Anderson’s memoir, South Mountain Road: A Daughter’s Journey of Discovery. Please persevere. And don’t be put off by the subtitle—even if the squishy word “journey” gives you hives, the book won’t. I promise. This is a straightforward recommendation—a prolonged staff pick, if you like.
If “September Song”—discussed recently in these pages—feels inherently melancholy, the standard comes by this honestly: its lyricist, Maxwell Anderson, led a life marked by sadness. The autobiographical Morning, Winter, and Night (written under a pseudonym) recounts a gothic childhood filled with abuse. And before he began his long and successful career as a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright, Anderson lost a number of jobs over his politics.
Anderson married his first wife young; they had three sons. But he soon started seeing the married Gertrude Higger (stage name: Mab Anthony), and he and his wife separated; not long after, she was killed in a car wreck. Anderson and Mab moved in together, and had a daughter, Hesper. The marriage was troubled by infidelity and extravagance, and after Anderson left her in 1953, Mab committed suicide.
Enter South Mountain Road. Hesper’s memoir recounts one year in her life: that following her mothers death, in which she digs into Mab’s past in search of that modern but timeless thing, closure. But it’s also a story of the theatrical world of the 1930s and forties—yes, there are plenty of celebrity cameos, if that’s a draw—of growing up around depression and instability, of complex family dynamics, and of, well, journeys of discovery. It wasn’t until after her mother’s death that Hesper learned that her parents had never married, or about her father’s own troubled childhood. She discovers a locked strongbox of letters, no less! And one central narrative of the book—her lifelong adoration of an older writer—adds to the turmoil. I don’t offer any sort of spoiler alert because these events, dramatic as they are, are not the “point” of reading South Mountain Road.
It sounds lurid, but really, it’s not. First line notwithstanding, the book is written with a deft touch and a sure sense of place. It’s spare and unsentimental. The author doesn’t romanticize herself or exaggerate the sense of tragedy, but she likes her own character enough to be good narrative company. And in her portrait of her mother, Anderson gives us one of the more nuanced narcissists in recent memory.
I found the book at a library sale. Maybe stumbling upon it is the best way, I don’t know. But we don’t always have that luxury—life is too short.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.