"Oh the Glory of It All"
(Reviewed by Leland Cheuk JAN 24, 2007)
“When Dede moved into Mom’s Napa Valley dream house she placed a needlepoint pillow on a couch in the living room, and did almost no other redecorating. The stitching of the pillow read:
YOU CAN NEVER BE TOO THIN OR TOO RICH…
In Napa there were things Dad liked to do and Dede hated to—non-thin/rich things. So, every other weekend, when I was there, Dad did them with me.”
To characterize Sean Wilsey’s memoir Oh The Glory Of It All as just a scathing portrait of a wealth-obsessed home-wrecking stepmother would be selling the author short. But hating Dede Wilsey, a San Francisco socialite and philanthropist, is the most enjoyable part of a memoir that is at once an effective coming-of-age tale, a touching love letter to aging parents, and a comic romp through 1970s San Francisco.
The author is the only son of Al Wilsey, a dairy and real estate mogul, and Pat Montandon, a socialite whose movie-star looks masks a predatory narcissism. The Wilsey’s appear to have it all until Sean’s parents divorce and his father marries Dede Traina, his mother’s best friend. To give you an idea of the circles in which the Wilsey’s run, Dede’s ex-husband John Traina then married Danielle Steele. The subsequent court battle is tabloid splash for months and Sean spends his childhood shuttling between parents who quickly become bitter enemies. With his mother, Sean travels the world as a “teacher of peace,” meeting world leaders like Pope John Paul III and Menachem Begin. With his father, Sean is the underachieving, socially awkward, unwanted stepchild of Dede Wilsey. And Sean hasn’t even turned twelve yet.
Sean’s travels with the “Children as the Peacemakers” organization read like something out of a Thomas Pynchon satire until you realize that the organization still exists and his mother has actually been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times. “We—all of us—are the snowflakes that go to make up the snowball that will create the avalanche for peace,” her mother says without irony to an English-impaired Russian man who appears more interested in Montandon’s beauty than peace-bearing snowflakes.
In his high-school years, Sean’s poor grades and mischievous behavior lead his father and stepmother to exile him to a series of boarding and private reform schools. The self-absorption of his wealthy parents is chilling as Sean is repeatedly treated like a teen in need of urgent emotional help though he does nothing worse than smoke pot and take up skateboarding. Still, these chapters are the book’s weakest as readers who have already plowed their early Bret Easton Ellis will find Sean’s boarding school adventures rather tepid in comparison.
But the adult Wilsey rights the ship and anyone who has experienced the death of a parent will find the final scenes between Sean and his father worthy of unabashed tears. And anyone who has dealt with a postmortem estate grab will find Dede Wilsey’s behavior noxious and appalling. Sean Wilsey does not make many attempts to sugarcoat or even humanize the villainous Dede and if what he’s written is true, she probably doesn’t deserve it.
Oh The Glory Of It All is a well-researched, ambitious, and emotionally authentic memoir refreshingly free of the authorial vanity that has become all too common in this genre. Wilsey casts his parents as the stars and lets them speak for themselves, while allowing readers to decide whether his childhood was unfairly lost or simply lucky.
- Amazon readers rating: from 63 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Oh the Glory of It all (May 2005)
Edited with Matt Weiland:
- State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (September 2008)
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- Official website for the author
- The New Yorker interview with Sean Wilsey
- Stepmom ponders lawsuit over Sean Wilsey memoir
- International Herald Tribune on Dede Wilsey
- Village Voice review of Oh The Glory of It All
- Guardian Unlmited review of Oh the Glory of It All
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About the Author:
Sean Wilsey was born in 1960 in San Francisco, California. His writing has appeared in The London Review of Books, The Los Angeles Times, and McSweeney's Quarterly, where he is the editor at large. Before going to McSweeney's he worked as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker, a fact checker at Ladies' Home Journal, a letters correspondent at Newsweek, and an apprentice gondolier in Venice, Italy.
He lives with his wife, Daphne Beal, and his son, Owen.