Paperback reviews: My Age of Anxiety, Still Life with Breadcrumbs, A Story Lately Told, Falling, The Boarding House

Stossel highlights a boom in pill-taking

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The Independent Culture

My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel (Windmill £8.99)

Stossel is an author and the editor of The Atlantic magazine; he also suffers from a severe anxiety disorder which has, during his lifetime, done everything it can to undermine any sense of control he might have over his body. Sweating, weeping, sickness, sudden bowel evacuation: all of it has humiliated him, left him prostrate, sent him to a series of therapists, and had him ingest any number of pills.

What it’s cost him in monetary terms isn’t presented here, but the rise in “anxiety disorders” is suspiciously commensurate with the rise in pharmacological remedies for such conditions, leading to a boom in expensive pill-taking since the 1950s. Stossel isn’t really out to point any fingers, though; he’s merely trying to understand the crippling condition he has had since childhood and why we seem so unable to treat it effectively.

Is “anxiety” a product of our post-Industrial society? Is it genetic, caused by our upbringing, or simply dodgy wiring in the brain? Are high-achievers more likely to suffer? These different “narratives”  are chased here, from his great-grandfather, once dean of Harvard, who was committed to a mental hospital in 1948 diagnosed with “reactive depression”, to Stossel’s own breakdowns.

Despite being able to laugh at some of his more embarrassing episodes – flooding the Kennedy family’s toilet, for instance – his feeling of desperation is real.   

Stossel’s combination of personal stories and historical research, as well as wide contemporary reading on the subject, makes his account appealingly readable. Of all the possible narratives available, one can see that the link between mental illness and high-achievers should prove the most appealing. If only it were true.

***

Still Life with Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen (Windmill £7.99)

The title, its font, and the book’s cover photo may all be a little too suggestive of something light and fluffy. But Quindlen, a Pulitzer prize-winner, is sharper than that, and she cleverly steers her story about middle-aged Rebecca Winter, whose marriage has long been over and whose career looks like it has gone the same way, into territory that is both demanding and comforting at the same time. Unable to afford the payments on her Manhattan apartment any longer, the once acclaimed photographer must rent it out while she decamps to a rundown cottage in the country. Although we may raise an eyebrow at the handsome local handyman who happens to be as nurturing as he is butch, Rebecca herself is a fully-fledged character who must deal with loneliness, ageing and life’s general disappointments. Quindlen is very good at skewering self-indulgent moments, and there’s a welcome toughness under the blossoming romance.

****

A Story Lately Told by Anjelica Huston (Simon & Schuster £7.99)

This first volume of Huston’s autobiography has enough nuggets of personal love affairs with the rich and famous to keep a certain kind of reader happy. But her remembrances of growing up in Ireland and then in London are curiously disjointed, and there’s little real self-reflection until her horrific relationship with the famed fashion photographer, Bob Richardson. Huston’s upbringing was odd: she rarely spent time with her parents it seems, as she and her brother were cared for by “Nurse”. When John Huston strikes her face one day, she acknowledges her fear but stops short of questioning his love for her or how it might have impacted on her life. This is a fascinating account of an unusual life.

***

Falling by Emma Kavanagh (Arrow £6.99)

Kavanagh’s debut is a crime story with the added complication of a plane crash. It explores the after-effects of catastrophe on the individuals who have survived. Paralleling former policeman Jim Hanover’s loss of his daughter, who has been murdered, is that of crash survivor Cecilia, a member of the air crew who was in the process of running away from her husband. Cecilia’s back story slowly emerges as we learn why she cannot cope with being a mother or a wife, while another character, Freya, finds out more than she wished to know about her father, the pilot downed with the plane. Fathers and daughters emerge as a theme in this pared-back, swift-moving crime tale.

***

The Boarding House by William Trevor (Penguin £8.99)

Trevor’s 1965 novel is a dazzling display of character-led fiction which may not have aged terribly well, but there’s something almost joyous in the technical wizardry required to produce such a motley crew of monstrous, yet sympathetic, individuals. William Wagner Bird, a single man with means, chose people to inhabit his boarding-house with good reason, filling up notebooks with his impressions of their personalities. When he dies and leaves the house to two warring characters, he ensures trouble will arise. It’s hard to imagine such a tale being written now, with such unbiased affection for the disaffected, the lonely and the downright odd, which makes it all the more valuable.

****

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