South Mountain Road: A Daughter's Journey of Discovery

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9780684859019: South Mountain Road: A Daughter's Journey of Discovery

"My mother killed herself on the first day of spring." So begins South Mountain Road, Hesper Anderson's elegant, wrenching memoir of death and deception, family secrets and memories, and of a young girl's trauma of self-discovery.

When Hesper Anderson, the daughter of famed Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Maxwell Anderson (What Price Glory?, Winterset, Key Largo, The Bad Seed), got the phone call informing her that her mother, the beautiful, enigmatic Mab, had committed suicide, she knew that her world would be forever changed. A woman of baffling remoteness and alienating beauty, Mab Anderson had been the dominant figure in her daughter's life. What Hesper did not realize, however, was that beyond the inevitable devastation of loss lay a whole chain of discoveries that would link her irrevocably both to her mother's past and to secrets that would turn her world upside down.

Hesper was a shy young girl, insecure and -- to her mind -- inadequate. As a result, she spent much of her childhood adrift, rendered all but invisible by the alienating shadow of her mother, surrounded (but not impressed) by the brilliance and celebrity of her parents' friends and neighbors -- people such as the composer Alan Jay Lerner, cartoonists Bill Mauldin and Milton Caniff, playwright/composer Kurt Weill and Weill's wife, actress Lotte Lenya (who was also Mab's best friend) -- all of whom lived on or near South Mountain Road, in a rural community outside New York City.

It was to be expected, then, that when a handsome young author, himself an outsider, brought into the charmed world of South Mountain Road by Maxwell Anderson, showed Hesper special attention, she developed a schoolgirl crush on him. It was an attachment that endured for years and continued to haunt the impressionable young girl to the brink of womanhood and beyond, leading, perhaps inevitably, to an emotional crisis almost as devastating as her mother's death.

Hesper was away from South Mountain Road, off at college, when she got the call that her mother was dead. When that call came, Hesper began what was in effect a journey of discovery -- an immersion in the past that revealed unexpected facts about herself, about the world she had grown up in, and most especially about the two people who were her parents. What she discovered in the end was a series of shocking secrets, some terrible truths, and her own broken heart.

South Mountain Road is a startlingly personal and beautifully conceived and written story of a young girl's coming of age through the suicide of her mother. Featuring a virtual Who's who of literary celebrities of its time (the late 1930s and 1940s) and place (New York and its environs), it is a remarkably novelistic and delicately wrought memoir of immediacy and grace.

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Review:

Hesper Anderson's poignant memoir opens with her mother's suicide in March 1953 and closes late the following year, when reading the contents of Mab Anderson's strongbox revealed to 20-year-old Hesper that her parents were never married. This disclosure makes some sense out of turbulent interactions between her mother and father (the noted playwright Maxwell Anderson) that had baffled Hesper for years before their bitter separation. The author intersperses her narration of the period following her mother's death with memories of her childhood home on South Mountain Road in Rockland County, New York, where the Andersons lived in close communion with a group of fellow artists including Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, and cartoonist Milt Caniff. Visitors included humorist Marion Hargrove, the object of Hesper's adoration from the time she was 7, and the book's most shocking moment comes when Hargrove sleeps with the still-grieving girl months after her mother's suicide, then callously informs her he's getting married. Hesper Anderson skillfully conveys the comfortable yet bohemian atmosphere on South Mountain Road and its impact on her. Vivid character sketches include the warm, down-to-earth Lenya and the author's loving but judgmental father, but the strongest portrait is of Hesper herself, groping toward maturity in difficult circumstances. --Wendy Smith

About the Author:

Hesper Anderson is the author or coauthor of several screenplays and television plays, including the Academy Award-nominated Children of a Lesser God. This is her first book. She lives in Napa, California.

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