Title: Chanel Bonfire
Author: Wendy Lawless
304 pages, Published by Gallery Books
Buy the Book: Amazon
By the time Wendy Lawless turned seventeen,she’d known for quite some time that shedidn’t have a normal mother. But that didn’t stopher from wanting one. . . .
GEORGANN REA didn’t bake cookies or go to PTA meetings; she wore a mink coat and always had a lit Dunhill plugged into her cigarette holder. She went through men like Kleenex, and didn’t like dogs or children. Georgann had the ice queen beauty of a Hitchcock heroine and the cold heart to match. In “a searing memoir that reads like a novel” (Anne Korkeakivi, An Unexpected Guest), Wendy Lawless deftly charts the highs and lows of growing up with her younger sister in the shadow of an unstable, fabulously neglectful mother. Georgann, a real-life Holly Golightly who constantly reinvents herself as she trades up from trailer park to penthouse, suffers multiple nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts, while Wendy tries to hide the cracks in their fractured family from the rest of the world. Chanel Bonfire depicts a childhood blazed through the refined aeries of the Dakota and the swinging town houses of London, while the girls’ beautiful but damned mother desperately searches for glamour and fulfillment. Ultimately, Wendy and her sister must choose between living their own lives and being their mother’s warden—the hardest, most painful, yet most important decision each of them will ever make. (Summary provided by Gallery Books.)
If Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs and Mommie Dearest by Christina Crawford had a literary baby, it would be named Chanel Bonfire. The new memoir, Chanel Bonfire by Wendy Lawless, begins as she is dealing with her mother, Georgann’s suicide attempt. The family is living in The Dakota in New York City (Yes that Dakota), and Wendy’s mother, dressed in her signature blue Pucci nightgown attempts suicide in an attempt to keep the attentions of her second husband, the girls’ stepfather. This leads to a frightening scene where Georgann, recovered from her suicide attempt, sits down to tell her very young daughters of her own horrific childhood in the form of a bedtime story. Basically, Georgann starts off with “Once Upon A Time,” and this leads to one of the scariest, twisted, and true bedtime stories I could ever imagine a parent telling a child. One might assume Georgann’s experiences with abuse at the hands of her mother as a child would have lead her to aspire to be a better parent to her daughters. Unfortunately, this was not the case. After reading this section of the book I was horrified that a mother could be so indifferent to her children’s welfare, and at the same time I was hooked. As a writer, Wendy Lawless has a unique voice. Her words turn from a heartbreaking tableau to a witty reference in the blink of a sentence.
The beginning chapters of the memoir delve into Wendy and her sister, Robin’s early years when their mother and father were still together. One passage where Georgann kept the girls locked in a closet all day while their father was at work had me in tears. Wendy writes of being her sister’s protector throughout their childhood from as far back as she can remember. The pivotal moment within these early chapters comes when Georgann makes the announcement to end all announcements at the girls’ father’s work party. I won’t give this part of the book away, but let’s just say my jaw did some dropping.
After Georgann’s suicide attempt and the divorce from her second husband goes through, she receives a sizable settlement as a result of the divorce. She then sells the Dakota apartment and buys an apartment on Park Avenue. Once Georgann burns through most of the eligible bachelors in town and moves into a hotel with the girls, she abruptly decides to move to London.
Before the move to London, Wendy and Robin’s father tells them he plans to remarry. He makes it clear to the girls that he can’t wait for them to come visit him again. Up until now, summer stays with their father have been their one bastion of normalcy. However, when Georgann moves the girls to London, she tells them their father no longer wants to be involved in their lives. This leads to the girls not seeing their father for a very long time. This was heartbreaking to read. I don’t want to give any spoilers regarding what happened with their father, but as a reader, I loved him. He seems like such a gentle soul. Every time he entered a scene in the book I wanted to give him a hug.
When the girls arrive in London with their mother, they are now in their early teens, and London becomes a playground for the girls. This was my favorite section of the book. Full of glam rock references, one very funny anecdote about a chance encounter with Elton John, and a wild teen party that involved a bonfire on the back patio and lots of couture, Lawless paints a vivid portrait of life with a supremely neglectful and abusive mother.
Once Georgann squanders her divorce settlement, she takes the girls back to the states. Georgann’s mental state deteriorates further as the glamorous life she has been leading for years begins to slip through her fingers. With this deterioration comes an escalation of abuse and neglect at the hands of Georgann. The end of the book had me doing a fist pump for Wendy. I was so glad she was able to let go and distance herself from her mother. Wendy Lawless’s gift for humor in the face of adversity kept me turning the pages rapidly, and I would be remiss not to say her work is reminiscent of two of my favorite authors, David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs.
FYI: The Chanel Bonfire website is a great resource to use while reading the memoir. It has a slideshow of Lawless’s family photos, and a spotify playlist to go along with the book.
FTC Disclosure: I received a free copy of the book for review, and I make a small commission off of any purchases made by clicking through the Amazon links on this site.
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