Book Review: Chanel Bonfire
A stunning memoir about an actress's unconventional, heartbreaking childhood with an unstable alcoholic and suicidal mother — a real-life Holly Golightly turned Mommie Dearest — and the unusual strength that allowed her to rise above it all.
Georgann Rea didn't bake cookies or go to PTA meetings; she wore a mink coat and always had a lit Dunhill plugged into her cigarette holder. She had slept with too many men, and some women, and she didn't like dogs or children. Georgann had the ice queen beauty of a Hitchcock heroine and the cold heart to match.
In this evocative, darkly humorous memoir, Wendy deftly charts the highs and lows of growing up with her younger sister in the shadow of an unstable, fabulously neglectful mother. Georgann, a real-life Holly Golightly who constantly reinvents herself as she trades up from trailer-park to penthouse, suffers multiple nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts, while Wendy tries to hide the cracks in their fractured family from the rest of the world.
Full Cup, hands down.
You know those books you read that stay with you long after you’ve read the last page? Like a memory that is following you around, whispering in your ear?
That’s what Chanel Bonfire did for me. Wendy Lawless wrote it with such a vividness that I felt like I already knew the story in my heart as she was just telling it.
Stories about mother daughter relationships are among the oldest stories in our history. So how can each one be so unique?
Magically, I felt the same way towards her mother that I imagine she must have felt. I wanted to hate her for the mother she wasn’t being to her daughters, but at the same time, I couldn’t leave her behind. I wanted to read more about her.
Wendy writes about her childhood, how her mother reinvented herself by remarrying, living the life of a socialite, parading around in expensive clothes and using her 2 young daughters as props. On the outside, she had it all, but on the inside, Wendy and her sister's life was far from perfect.
She writes about how she and her sister grew up in a world where each day's happiness depended on their mother's mood. As the older sister, Wendy also struggled in the role of protector of younger Robin and their relationship is shaped by the paths they take to get away from their mother. The story of the girls' father is also fascinating to me. The father-daughter connection never really broke, even after 10 years of not knowing him. Wendy's father's career as an actor ultimately shaped Wendy's own future, which I think is a priceless sentiment to their strong bond. Their reunion in the book was a miracle on paper. I could feel, see and hear their emotions and connection. It was riveting.
Lawless’s mother was at some parts, on the surface, a hero, providing her daughters with a posh lifestyle, elegant homes, extravagant vacations, beautiful clothing and yet, she was a prisoner. Wendy's childhood was a world where her mother tucking her into bed was a special occasion and bedtime stories were about murder. She took the Christmas gifts away shortly after the girls unwrapped them, she robbed them of a relationship with their father and she told them lies when all they wanted was the truth.
She writes about her mother in an unbiased and observatory voice that was matter of fact but still emotional. Here's one of the hundreds of sentences I highlighted on my Kindle that resonated with me:
"She lacked the necessary equipment for the job of motherhood,
which partly wasn't her fault. It was just...missing, buried somewhere..."
See what I mean? See how Lawless writes eloquently and optimistically about such a sad thing? It's like reading a terribly sad story, but you are wrapped up in a warm blanket by a crackling fire, totally comfortable.
Lawless ties the end of Chanel Bonfire up quickly and matter of factually, which I appreciate because I was dying to know more about the characters in her life. And since I was emotionally invested in Lawless's life story, it was funny: at then end it was as if we were old friends and I had to know at the end of the book if she was okay. Even after the story had ended, I kept reading through the post script and the acknowledgements, trying to soak up as much as the story as I could. I was glad that I did, because there, tucked away in the acknowledgments is this little gem:
"(To) My children, Harry and Grace, for their love and patience,
and for giving me the chance to have a happy childhood after all,
by giving one to them. You two are my heart."
Like I said, friends. Glass. Full.