Picks and Pans Review: Treetops: a Family Memoir
by Susan Cheever
One day, when Susan Cheever was a child, she read one of her father John Cheever’s short stories and realized that it was a fictionalized account of a recent family skiing trip. In her father’s story, however, the protagonist’s young daughter was killed in a ski-lift accident. “The world stopped when I read the end of that story, and when it started again it wasn’t quite the same,” writes Ms. Cheever.
Should a writer use his family in his fiction? Ms. Cheever, author of five novels herself, can’t quite decide, but readers will be engaged by her attempts to come up with an answer.
John Cheever, who died in 1982, was an alcoholic and a bisexual who, especially in his melancholic short stories, captured the simultaneous push and pull of suburban family life.
“My father needed the marriage—my mother [poet Mary Cheever] kept it together,” their daughter writes here. Ms. Cheever, who also wrote a harrowing memoir about her father, Home Before Dark, in 1984, set out on a dual mission with this latest book: to write a history of her mother’s family and to examine the emotional cost of her father’s borrowing from his family life to write his fiction.
Mary Cheever’s maternal grandfather was Thomas Watson, coinventor of the telephone. Her father was Milton Charles Winternitz, a fierce-tempered Jewish medical scholar who became dean of the Yale School of Medicine. Widowed in 1930 and with five children, he wed Pauline Webster Whitney, a Waspy society woman—MEDICAL HEAD CRASHES SOCIETY BY MARRYING SMART SET LEADER read a headline—with four children of her own. The Winternitz and Whitney children clashed miserably during their enforced closeness at Treetops, the Winternitzes’ summer home in New Hampshire. “My mother and her brothers still think the Whitneys look down on them, and they still resent it,” Ms. Cheever writes.
The book’s final third is a moral discourse. Ms. Cheever writes that her brothers, writer-editor Ben and lawyer Federico, resent how their father portrayed his family in fiction. Mary herself tells her daughter that she sometimes didn’t read her husband’s stories; when she did, she didn’t think about them.
But then she complains bitterly about “An Educated American Woman,” a Cheever story written after Mary had embarked upon a career of her own, in which a woman leaves her sick child to attend a meeting. “He didn’t I have to kill that little boy,” Mary tells her daughter. She may be right, but would the story have worked as well? (Bantam, $19.95)