MICHELE NORRIS, host:
We're going to continue now with our summer reading series, You Must Read This. This week, we're hearing from authors about their favorite books and the series continues all summer long on NPR.org. Today, Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of Prep, talks about the glory of Sean Wilsey's book Oh The Glory of It All.
CURTIS SITTENFELD reporting:
To produce a memoir worth reading, a person needs to have either writing talent or else juicy material. Sean Wilsey has both in abundance and that's what makes Oh the Glory of It All so extraordinary. It's a tale of over-the-top people and places described with such precision that they come explosively and thrillingly alive. This is a book that's many things at once, an indictment of parental selfishness, a genealogical research project, a personal catharsis, a love letter to San Francisco, a peek into a world of lavish privilege and an exposé of American boarding schools.
In 1979, when Sean Wilsey was nine years old, his outrageously wealthy parents divorced. His father soon remarried his mother's former best friend, an alternately charming and cruel woman named Dede. Dede is perhaps the most manipulative person I've ever encountered, either in life or on the page, which is to say she makes for riveting reading.
Wilsey's mother, meanwhile, is equally fascinating and complex. Raised by evangelical ministers in rural Texas, she becomes a San Francisco writer and socialite. After the divorce, when she's not hiding out in bed and discussing her suicidal fantasies with her 11-year-old son, she's traveling to far-flung countries, un-ironically trying to create world peace.
As he describes his family, it's noteworthy that Wilsey seems less intent on seeking revenge than on trying like an anthropologist to understand why things turned out the way they did. And he's as unstintingly honest about himself as he is about everyone else.
As a teenager bouncing around among his parents, stepmother and jerky stepbrothers, Sean is increasingly seen as a troublemaker and is shipped off to and then kicked out of a series of boarding schools. He starts at prestigious St. Mark's in Massachusetts, but before long finds himself at a locked-down school of last resort in the California wilderness. It's the boarding school section of the book that confirms what a terrific writer Wilsey is. He's so funny and observant that he's able to show the weirdness and idiosyncrasies not just of his colorful family members, but of everyone.
Oh the Glory of It All is a compulsively readable book and it seems as if there must have been some compulsion in the writing of it, too. Propelled by humor, pain, curiosity and a manic eye for detail, it feels like a book Wilsey simply had to write.
NORRIS: Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of Prep, talking about Sean Wilsey's Oh The Glory of It All. You Must Read This continues at our website. There you'll find other authors talking about their favorites. Visit NPR.org/summerbooks.