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Book Club: Let’s Discuss “Fairyland”

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I prefer memoirs to novels, and I love a good coming-of-age story, particularly one with a feisty female protagonist who faces unique challenges (or normal challenges in a unique way), so Fairyland, by Alysia Abbott, was right up my alley. A coming-of-age memoir about a woman who was raised by her single, gay father in 1970s and 80s San Francisco at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, Fairyland is, as a New York Times book reviewer noted, “an elegy of sorts, written two decades after a father’s death by a woman who is now a parent herself.” I think what I appreciated most about the rich telling of her story was how well Abbott conveyed both the struggle and the joy of her unique upbringing. Her father’s love is apparent throughout the book, but so is his oftentimes gross irresponsibility and almost indifference to his daughter’s needs and his job to protect her. What I really took away the most from the book is the idea of how imperfect love is. Yes, it may look more imperfect among some people and certain relationships — and I think the love between Alysia and her father is a perfect example of very imperfect love — but there’s none of us who can’t relate to loving and being loved imperfectly.

Those of you who read the book, do you think Alysia’s childhood would have been “better” if her grandparents had raised her? And how do you measure better? I think her life certainly would have been more comfortable and stable, but I wonder if she would have still been just as lonely. Her grandparents didn’t strike me as the warmest, most loving people. But with them, Alysia would have had more access to her extended family and maybe would have made friends more easily. (Maybe she wouldn’t have felt so “weird” or wouldn’t have been so embarrassed to bring friends over to her home). Then again, I’m sure she learned a lot from her father that has informed her roles as a writer, a mother, and a compassionate, thoughtful person in the world that perhaps she wouldn’t have learned as well — or at all — living with her grandparents.

Anyway, I’m so excited that Sophia Coppola is adapting Fairyland as a film! She’s one of my favorite directors and I can’t wait to see what kind of vision and interpretation she’ll have of the story.

What are your thoughts on Fairyland? Did you feel compassion toward her father, Steve, or just disdain over the way he raised his young daughter? Do you think he was right to ask her to leave school and come care for him as he died? Do you think she was right to drag her feet for as long as she did and to avoid him for much of her college career while his health rapidly declined? What do you think would have become of the family if Alysia’s mother hadn’t died?

(Our May/June Book Club selection is The Husband’s Secret by Lianne Moriarty).

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{ 11 comments… add one }

avatar bethany May 7, 2014, 2:54 pm

I really enjoyed the book. It was really eye opening to me, since my upbringing was just about the complete opposite of hers. I know that all families are different, and all that, but even at the age of 32, I don’t think I’ve been really exposed to many lifestyles that are that totally different from mine, and I really enjoyed being able to experience her life, in a way.
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To answer Wendy’s questions- Yeah, I had compassion for Steve. I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to have to take on raising a young child all by yourself. But to do it in the midst of the San Fran scene at that time must have been crazy. The personal struggle to live your truest life, but also to have this child who you love and want to take care of the best that you can must have been intense to live through.
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I don’t know that Alysia would have been any better off living with her grandparents. I mean, her dad would have still died, and she obviously wouldn’t have had such a close relationship with him to look back on and treasure, had she not been there. The things she saw, the people she met, the crazy things they did, all of that probably made her a much more tolerant, accepting, compassionate person in the long run.
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I don’t think it was “right” per se for her to drag her feet in coming home, but you certainly can’t blame her for wanting to pretend the whole situation wasn’t happening, or at least not wanting to believe how bad things really were.

Dear Wendy Dear Wendy May 7, 2014, 3:07 pm

I felt myself getting bad at Steve for taking such liberty in raising a young child. Like, how he just left Alysia home alone when she was 6 years old to go to the bars. And how he got angry when she got lost coming home on the city bus by herself (I think she was like 9?). And how he’d move them in with drug addicts or allow addicts to move in with them (not to mention, of course, that he was an addict himself). The love was very apparent and I think Alysia really goes out of her way to make that love obvious, but the lack of regard is also very obvious and, frankly, very sad. I’m surprised the upper crust grandparents didn’t fight harder for custody, but then I guess they only knew what they were told since he doesn’t seem like they ever came to visit and check on things.

Lianne Lianne May 7, 2014, 3:15 pm

I tend to agree with this, Wendy, but perhaps because of the stark presence of drugs, even when her mother was alive, all throughout the book, it wasn’t as jarring? I mean, I also grew up with an alcoholic mother, so maybe I am a little desensitized.

Lianne Lianne May 7, 2014, 3:17 pm

I can’t edit my comment, but also meant to say, she also made terrible choices about the men she dated and staying out all night, etc. when we were kids, so I was around that type of selfish behavior. Not saying it’s right, because it didn’t feel good, but just that I am a little desensitized.

Dear Wendy Dear Wendy May 7, 2014, 3:22 pm

I saw one of those someecards the other day that was supposed to be to a new baby from his/her parent that said something like: “I promise to be just dysfunctional enough to make you interesting,” and that’s kind of what stories like this (and yours) remind me of. Like, clearly you turned out fine even though your mom made some terrible choices, and in a lot of ways, you are probably “better” for the experiences you had as a child, even if those experiences were difficult at the time. If that makes sense?

Lianne Lianne May 7, 2014, 3:49 pm

Totally makes sense. And I KNOW it will make me a better parent when the time comes. We all are who we are because of our experiences. So even though it would have been nice to have a kick ass mom, I like who I am, so I can’t hate on it too much. :)

avatar bethany May 7, 2014, 3:15 pm

Oh, yeah, some of the things he did were certainly neglectful- there’s no doubt about that. I wonder if the situation would have been different had there been more resources for him. Like nowadays you can go online and easily learn things about parenting or get connected to other people who are in similar situations. He was isolated in his parenthood. He didn’t have other parent friends or role models.

Lianne Lianne May 7, 2014, 3:12 pm

Like you, Wendy, I really enjoyed this book. It was a story told from an interesting perspective, given Alysia was telling it, but had access to her father’s journals and essays, so his voice came through loud and clear, as well. I am not sure Alysia would have been better off living with her grandparents, but it certainly would have made her a different person. One thing that struck me about her extended family is that her aunt seemed so disinterested in making her feel part of her own family. Perhaps that speaks to the relationship she had with her late sister, or perhaps the lack of warmth that you mention in the grandparents affecting her own parenting/maternal style.

I did feel compassion for Steve. I really think he did the best he could with the tools he had. He was a sexually ambiguous man, who married a woman, and then tried to make his way living as a gay man after her death. To me it seemed like he was never quite feeling comfortable in any of those roles. As he was figuring all that out, he was also raising a daughter who had lost her mother at a very young age. It was almost like a parallel of them raising each other. I also think if he didn’t want to raise her, he could have taken the easy way out, by sending her to live with her grandparents – at any point – and he never did.

With regard to him asking Alysia to leave school, I think that was much for her as it was for him. He knew is time was short and he could have easily let her continue to live her life as she was in NY. But then she might have looked back and regretted missing that extra time with him at the end. I think her avoiding his illness as long as she did has as much to do with her age as it does with denial. I feel like many people are selfish at that time in their lives, as we figure out who we are and what we want to become. Having to deal with a sick parent, especially one who may have missed the mark in some of their parenting, has to be a terribly awkward thing to face.
If Alysia’s mother had lived, I think she and Steve would have divorced and Alysia would have been dealing with two parents trying to figure themselves out – that’s based on her mother’s behavior right before she died. So really, it may have been a similar – or worse – situation.

Dear Wendy Dear Wendy May 7, 2014, 3:27 pm

I did not grow up in a broken home or with parents who were neglectful or anything like that. In many ways, I had a really normal, idyllic childhood, in the sense that my family life was relatively stable. But there was a lot of instability in my world because we lived in foreign countries and moved around so much (every 2-3 years, we moved to a different country or city). And we spent every summer in my grandparents’ home in st. louis where I got a taste of what life could be like if we lived like normal people, like my cousins who stayed in the same town through their whole childhood.

Anyway, in a tiny way, I could relate to some of Fairyland. And it’s that tiny part that I’m thankful. It’s just enough dysfunction to keep me interesting…

Lianne Lianne May 7, 2014, 3:50 pm

I don’t think anyone’s upbringing is perfect. But like I said in an earlier post, it makes us who we are!

Kate Kate May 7, 2014, 4:06 pm

Lianne knows this, but once I told my mom that my boyfriend had said our family was even more dysfunctional than his. Her reaction was to scream at me to go fuck myself.

I’m in pretty decent shape as an adult person, but I do worry that if I’d had kids I would pass on some of her dysfunction, such as her tendency to just reflexively slap my face when I was being bratty, or some of her insecurities and such. I could have done without that shit growing up even if it’s kind of amusing now to be like, yeah, my mom and I used to get in physical fights, and people look at my mom and can’t believe it.

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