December 28, 2006
About Alice by Calvin Trillin
What lies behind my fascination with memoirs by widowed spouses? There is something terribly indulgent about reading these books. Why do I cherish The Year of Magical Thinking and The Escape Artist, am looking forward to reading Love is a Mix Tape and have been anticipating About Alice by Calvin Trillin for months now? I have narrowed it down to the fact that I like reading about happy marriages, which are near-impossible to capture in fiction, and require a death in non-fiction in order to be considered book-worthy.
I spent a lovely bit of time tonight with the awaited About Alice, a love letter from Calvin Trillin to his wife. Expanded from his essay “Alice Off the Page”, which was published in The New Yorker last March, this small and perfect volume tells the story of an extraordinary woman, of the man who loved her, and the story of their life together until her death from cancer in 2001. Typically for Trillin, the writing is funny even when it’s sad, though the ending can’t help but break your heart a little. But what is most powerful about this book is Alice herself, or the way in which she is presented in the light of her husband’s love.
A seriously gorgeous woman (as the photo on the book’s back cover attests), Alice Stewart Trillin was also brilliant. Fiercely principled and protective of her camp, she exemplified a life well-lived and served as a force for good. It’s good to read about people like that– a dose of the positive, even with the awful ending. It’s good to know there are marriages like that– such strong foundations in our often dismal world. And it’s hope too, for those of us who want to keep on being happy for as long as we possibly can.
Trillin writes that one of Alice’s signature phrases was “We’re so lucky”. And she was especially lucky to have a husband who writes so well and loves her enough to create such tribute. And the rest of us, of course, are so lucky just to get to read it.