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Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Blake Bailey has been hailed as addictively readable (New York Times) and praised for his ability to capture lives compellingly and in harrowing detail (Time). The Splendid Things We Planned is his darkly funny account of growing up in the shadow of an erratic and increasingly dangerous brother, an exhilarating and sometimes harrowing story that culminates in one unforgettable Christmas."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-11-25
- Reviewer: Staff
It seems fitting that biographer Bailey tells the story of his own life by chronicling his brother Scott’s alcoholism and drug addiction, which causes him to descend into violence and madness. Told in chronological order, starting with the marriage of his straight-laced lawyer father to his bohemian, German-immigrant mother, Bailey’s story captures the contradictions and tensions that simmer just below the surface of the family, as they try to live a normal suburban life in Oklahoma. But as Scott goes from being a self-absorbed teen to a pothead, college dropout, and junkie, the family dynamic unravels, breaking up the marriage as the author himself heads toward alcoholism, debauchery, and ennui—though not to his brother’s depths. But this is Scott’s story, and Bailey tells it wonderfully, in a tragicomic tone that slowly reveals the true depths to which his older brother has sunk. (Mar.)
A biographer's own story
Blake Bailey has written notable biographies of authors John Cheever and Richard Yates, both difficult and brilliant men. While he was sifting through their lives, he was also reflecting on his own. The Splendid Things We Planned is the resulting portrait, a story of mental illness and addiction and the difficult orbits they force upon the healthy. It’s also a tribute to one family’s best efforts and inevitable failings.
Bailey’s older brother, Scott, was born while his parents were still in college. Re-established in Vinita, Oklahoma, their father parlayed his law school education into ever-increasing job responsibility while their mother followed her intellectual bliss and turned their home into a mini-salon for foreign exchange students and witty gay men. Young Blake took in scenes of infidelity and drug use, but his attention was generally on Scott, a handsome bully whose seemingly limitless potential gradually collapsed under relentless drug use and delusional thinking.
Bailey tells a difficult story with spare language that allows for some dry humor. His father remarries a woman who despises both sons equally, so he largely checks out where they’re concerned for several years. His mother dotes on her oldest boy, ever faithful that he’d turn back into the son she knew. “She missed Scott and wanted to talk about him, simple as that—to speculate about his motives, to retrace our steps to the exact point in time when everything went blooey.” Anyone who has lived with someone similarly ill will find this book painfully accurate when it comes to the mental gymnastics and survivor’s guilt involved.
The family as a whole is an eccentric bunch, and Marlies, Scott’s mother, keeps her dignity and a sense of humor while buying a pistol to defend herself against her son. If The Splendid Things We Planned is a damning portrait of mental illness, it’s also an unforgettable look at a family doing its best in the most trying of circumstances, those where no good outcome exists.