Fay Weldon is the author of 24 novels, five short story collections, two children's books, four works of nonfiction, several plays, and now AUTO DA FAY, a memoir. This delightful autobiography is imbued with the same audaciousness and perspicacity as is her other works. As a woman of deep insights she highlights the key, transcendent events of her life. On page one, titled "Pre-name," she writes, "I long for a day of judgment when the plot lines of our lives will be neatly tied, and all puzzles explained, and the meaning of events made clear. We take to fiction…because no such thing is going to happen, and at least on the printed page we can observe beginnings, middles and ends, and can find out where morality resides." She declares that, while life moves into entropy, each individual does the best with the hand s/he is dealt.
Weldon was born in 1931 and raised in a rural New Zealand town called Napier. She was the daughter of a troubled but creative mother who, along with Fay and her sister Jane, was abandoned by Fay's father, a selfish, philandering doctor named Frank Birkinshaw. The girls attended a private parochial school and, early on, Fay displayed her dislike for authority and disdain for pomposity. "Mother Teresa was nice and motherly, and would hug you and give you sticky treats: all the others… ruled by sarcasm and violence. I liked their names, but that was about all."
When the sisters wanted to baptize the girls, Fay's mother wouldn't allow it. She describes her parents as "… freethinkers, rationalists --- humanists" and, while Jane had been christened as a Protestant, Fay had not even had that benediction to her name. This state of her soul meant that Fay was excluded from much at school and learned to enjoy her own company. She also had to learn to take care of herself and approach life's challenges with a sense of humor. She says she was the 'good' girl, always wanting to please.
Affable or not, Fay grew up in a strange milieu that was often as perplexing as it was pleasing. She attended school, made friends, and her relationship with her troubled mother was as exasperating as any normal girl finds her mother to be, even under the best of circumstances --- and these women certainly didn't have it easy. In 1946, at the end of World War II, upon the death of a relative, Fay's mother received an inheritance of…"nine hundred pounds." This gift changed all of their lives because it allowed them to go to England. There, the schools Fay attended and the people she met offered the opportunity for her to nurture her genius for writing.
Weldon's life, at times, unfolds like the lives her heroines lead: she became pregnant and gave birth to a son; she married a man whom she thought would take care of her, but didn't want to have sex with her and insisted he be her pimp; she went to work for an ad agency and did so well that she wrote herself out of a job; and twists of fate kept her on a journey into an interesting life that keeps going on and on. Her words are but amulets of power, both here and in her other writing. She uses well her flawless sense of timing to limn her own story effectively and inspirationally. Weldon's fans will delight in visiting the places, sharing the experiences, and looking within themselves, as she does, and asking some of the same questions about life, love, work, parenting, survival and family. But Fay Weldon will deny this. She says of herself that she does not enjoy the journey inward. She does not enjoy examining 'who she is'.
But fortunately for us, she does raise 'those' deep questions; the ones we all struggle with and, fundamentally, Fay Weldon is as unconventional in her writing as she is in her life. Her honest approach to her writing reflects her observations as they regard the 'war between the sexes' and the roles people play in their relationships. This memoir ends when she is getting on with her first novel, THE FAT WOMAN'S JOKE, and the rest is, as they say, history. Enjoy!
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 21, 2011