29 January 2013

Wendy Lawless & ‘Chanel Bonfire’

Wendy Lawless’ Chanel Bonfire is subtitled A Memoir, but really it might have been called “A Thrilling Tale of Survival” or even “A Most Dangerous Book for Girls.” I’ve known Wendy for years, since she began dating a friend from the Columbia Writing Program, David Kidd, and I’ve heard some of the stories she tells here: I even read a couple of chapters in manuscript. Yet I suspect that no amount of familiarity could prepare me for the full impact of Chanel Bonfire.

How on earth did Wendy survive her mother — to say nothing of how Wendy and Dave managed to construct one of the sanest households I know, inhabited by two of the coolest children I know? Wendy’s mother, Georgann Rea, was a monster of narcissism whose pursuit of her own fancy led her to upend and sometimes jeopardize her daughters’ lives again and again; she drank too much and spent too much and dated recklessly. It goes almost without saying that she suffered from mental illness, yet numberless people fell for her most outlandish self-dramatizations. Reading the book, I found myself mentally pronouncing her name “Gorgon.”

Wendy spent much of her youth apologizing for her mother and covering over her worst faults and lapses, largely but not entirely in order to protect her younger sister, Robin. But Wendy has come to terms with the truth now, and by “terms” I do also mean language, and that much at least is no surprise: any actor who can handle the furious wordplay of David Ives’ All in the Timing, as Wendy did Off-Broadway, must wield the language dexterously, and Wendy does.

One of my favorite people —
and now she’ll be one of your favorites, too.

Yet there’s not a single note of bitterness in the book, even when she’s describing, for example, how Georgann kept Wendy and Robin apart from their father for years (telling them he no longer loved them, telling him nothing at all) or how Georgann vamped Wendy’s boyfriend and drove him away. Instead, Wendy writes with a serene objectivity and a healthy dose of wit that led me to call the book “horricomic.” Her prose can be laugh-out-loud funny, even when it’s breaking your heart.

It all seems so glamorous, on the surface, as Georgann indulges in designer clothes and vintage wines and spins around Manhattan nightclubs and London salons. But there are all kinds of price tags attached to those fancy labels. Georgann is indifferent to her daughters when she isn’t actively hostile (and violent, especially toward Robin), and every time she jets off to a new man and a new address, she forces the girls to make their way in another new environment, alone. They’re perpetual outsiders, constantly on the move, and with a military-surgical precision, Georgann cuts her daughters off from everyone they care about, especially adults who might save them: their father, their stepfather, a beloved nanny.

Awful as the details may be, Chanel Bonfire is never depressing, not only because of Wendy’s wryly humorous perspective but perhaps also because at heart the book is a coming-of-age story, and we watch (white-knuckled at times) as Wendy wins her independence from Georgann. It would be rather hard to believe her victory, if we didn’t hold the evidence in our hands. And, as I say, I can testify that, in this regard, Wendy isn’t acting. She’s writing — exceptionally well — and living proudly with her own grace and intelligence.

Further proof of victory: Wendy and Dave’s children
are people you actually enjoy spending time with.
WVM, with a Lawless Kidd, Paris 2008.
Photo by Wendy Lawless©

Chanel Bonfire is available for purchase directly from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, here; you can purchase from Amazon, as well, by clicking here. The website for the book can be found here.

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