Why is it that the most sensitive, intelligent children often end up with selfish, ineffective parents? Whatever the reason, it provides fodder for many an interesting novel. ALL THE FINEST GIRLS by Alexandra Styron (yes, she is William Styron's daughter) stands firmly in this category, enlivened by skillful writing and a lack of whining.
Adelaide Kane Abraham grows up wealthy and neglected by her self-absorbed parents, Hank and "Baby." Hank is a well-known political essayist and scholar. Baby is an heiress and actress. Their sarcastic, often drunken fighting leaves their daughter alienated and subject to fearsome visits from "Cat." This feline bogeyman torments the young Addy, reducing her to screaming rages. She becomes practically unmanageable, wild haired and unpredictable.
Security and comfort arrive for Addy in the form of Louise, a black live-in nanny from the Caribbean island of St. Clair. Louise takes Addy to movies and defends her from the taunts of classmates. Addy grows up feeling that Louise saved her from a loveless, terrifying existence, so when she learns as an adult that Louise has died, she impulsively flies to St. Clair for the funeral.
Under the blistering sun, horning in on Louise's real family, Addy confronts some painful truths about her own past as well as Louise's. She searches her old nanny's room in vain for a picture of herself. Louise's two grown sons by turns shun and tease Addy. Louise's sister Marva takes the time to relate the details of Louise's love life, imparting wisdom to the shell-shocked Addy along the way. "People are nevah perfect," says Marva. "Love is a mortal pain, but yah gots to love or yah aren't wort yah flesh on de open market."
In the end, the knowledge Addy gains in St. Clair seems to free her to become more of an adult, to begin to forgive herself and others for their failures. She visits her mother, long divorced from her father, with a new perspective; and while Addy will always be sensitive and perhaps fragile, we are left with hope that she can build a happier life.
Ms. Styron's prose is immediate and affecting. Adelaide the adult is telling the tale, but her memories of childhood are clear and direct. Throughout the book we get fresh, compelling images that keep us sympathetic with Addy. "My feelings crept up my neck like an allergic reaction, making me want to remove my own skin." The author isn't afraid to experiment with form, using italics and incomplete sentences to create the intensity of the younger Addy's fear and confusion. ALL THE FINEST GIRLS is interesting, original, and well worth reading.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 20, 2011
All the Finest Girls: A Novel