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© Bella Stander

book reviews

by Jennifer Lauck
(Pocket Books)

Wall Street Journal
December 8, 2000

by Bella Stander

It may seem churlish to find fault with a memoir that recounts a wretched childhood, particularly when it wins accolades from the likes of Frank McCourt and is chosen to inaugurate Rosie O'Donnell's Book Club. Yet it's hard to see why six years, no matter how miserable, in the life of an otherwise unremarkable child should take up 400-plus pages. Consider that images from Jerzy Kosinski's semi-autobiographical novel, The Painted Bird, which is only 234 pages in paperback, still haunt this reader after more than 30 years. With Blackbird, once the reader's tears are dry, it's unlikely that the book's bloated prose will leave much of an impression.

Yes, Blackbird is a tearjerker. This is made clear with two prefatory quotes, the first from the Beatles' song of the same title, the second a transcript of a doctor's "death summary." Reading the latter is like listening to the overture to La Traviata: You know that eventually a beautiful woman is going to cough up blood and die. So Janet Lauck does, but only after her adoring daughter chronicles the quotidian minutiae of their lives in suspiciously exact detail. What pre-kindergartener would know which drugs were in the many bottles on Momma's nightstand, or could recall verbatim someone saying, "The thing we believe comes to us through our experiences. The thing you believe has to come through your heart"?

Momma dies on page 163, shortly after six-year-old Jennifer is told, brutally, that she was adopted. That should be more than enough grief for one kid--and one book--to bear, but there's plenty more, including another death and abandonment in Los Angeles. Like her idol, Sleeping Beauty, Jennifer is ultimately rescued and restored to her own realm (i.e., Nevada). However, unlike a fairy-tale heroine, a memoirist has to do more than suffer and survive. Ms. Lauck's story may be emotionally affecting, but ultimately it's just a catalog of woes with no overarching vision beyond its blur of tears.

© 2000 Bella Stander

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