This brief, beautiful book is a tribute to Alice Trillin, the
author's wife, who died in New York City after a long battle with
cancer on September 11, 2001. In this moving series of essays about
Alice's character and person, Calvin Trillin never notes the
coincidence of her death with the destruction of the World Trade
Center, perhaps understandably reluctant to compare the two events.
In fact, he avoids anything mawkish or overly sentimental and makes
no overt plays for the reader's sympathy, preferring to let his
fond illumination of Alice's life speak for itself.
Trillin has been a prolific writer for a lifetime, and many of his
readers already felt a kinship with the woman he admits he
sometimes portrayed as a "dietician in sensible shoes." Nobody has
skewered family life and travails (traveling, eating, parenting)
with as much gentle wit as he has, and given what he calls his
"sitcom view" of their life, it's only natural that readers may
have a skewed concept of the woman he married in the late 1960s and
raised two daughters with. So many of his light, funny articles
have featured her as straight man --- a kind of George Burns to his
In this book, Trillin fleshes out this adored woman, presenting
Alice Stewart Trillin as a teacher, writer, activist and lecturer
in her own right. She was straightforward in her views and not
afraid to voice her opinion, regardless of the company. "If we'd
had the misfortune to live in a milieu that called on me to work my
way up in a corporation and on Alice to be the supportive and
diplomatic and perfectly behaved corporate wife, I sometimes told
her, I would never have emerged from middle management."
Alice was also beautiful, and while she shunned as extravagant some
luxuries like fancy cars, she loved nice clothes and travel. She
adored her children and was fanatical about attending every school
event. A brush with death from lung cancer in 1976 shaped her life
thereafter, increasing her devotion to helping others with cancer
and sharpening her priorities.
Trillin's memories of Alice are at once inspiring, heartwarming,
clever and sad. The book, much of which already has appeared in
The New Yorker, is organized into short chapters about her
beauty, passion for the English language, parental devotion,
forthrightness and fortitude. Where appropriate, Trillin includes
some of their dear friends' poignant remembrances to illustrate his
points, but he also peppers the text with notes from readers who
knew her only through his writing. "Yet I got a lot of letters like
the one from a young woman in New York who wrote that she sometimes
looked at her boyfriend and thought, 'But will he love me like
Calvin loves Alice?'"
In Trillin's prose, love has always sparkled just around the corner
from wit --- and it hasn't stopped sparkling. From the evidence of
this book, it's abundantly clear that the young woman's anxiety is
well founded. Few are lucky enough to love (or be loved) as long
and as well as Calvin Trillin loved his Alice.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on December 22, 2010