Reflections on Onliness

October 26, 2008 at 10:45 pm 7 comments

This past week I read both Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo, which made me question every action I’ve ever taken and wonder if it is totally textbook only child, and Washington Square, which has an only child as its heroine. Perhaps because I read Only Child first, my reading of Washington Square was necessarily tainted by the attempted psychoanalysis I now give to things related to only children. However, that aside, here are my thoughts on both.

At the obvious risk of outing myself, I am an only child and it was for this reason that I wanted to read Only Child (and because I recently made the acquaintance of one of the co-editors, another only). I hoped that I would read the book and either find commiseration in things I never realized were only child things or realize that I was what I hoped to be: a utterly not stereotypical only. (You know the type. Self-centered, spoiled, bratty. A general headache.) However, what the book ended up doing was opening up a Scylla and Charybdis of things I never thought to worry about before. For example, when you’re an only, who is there to remember your family memories after your parents are gone? It’s just you. Similarly, who is there to help you take care of your elderly parents? Again, just you. And who will be there to grieve when those parents are gone? Can anyone but a sibling feel the kind of pain you feel over the loss of your parents? I don’t care how many cousins and other well-meaning relatives you have, I can’t imagine anyone feeling the loss of either of my parents more sorely than yours truly.

That said, I also feel compelled to make everyone around me read this book. It honestly affected my life and the way I think about things and what more can you ask for in a book? There is this curtain of curiosity that exists between onlies and non-onlies. It is sheer and you can just make out the shapes on the other side, but you can never really join them, but that doesn’t ever stop you from wondering what it is like over there. I think Only Child just might be the answer to pulling back that curtain a wee tad and learning a little more about the other side.

Having gotten those essays under my belt, I turned to Washington Square by Henry James. It is my second James and the official New York City Big Read this year, so it seemed like a good choice. And, as fate would have it, an utterly appropriate choice following Only Child since the heroine is an only. While my first James (The Aspern Papers) was utterly disappointing, I really enjoyed Washington Square.

The book is a close character study focusing on four characters, Dr. Sloper, Catherine Sloper, Mrs. Penniman and Morris Townsend. There is a small plot, but the characters are mainly what move the story. This works quite well since James is extremely deft at keeping up the mystery of someone’s “true” character. While he left the women in the book utterly unambiguous in their character (e.g. Catherine is sweet but simple and Mrs. Penniman is foolish), the two males were much more complicated and their motives are less easy to see. And, coming at the book from the perspective of only-child-ness, Catherine was a wonderful treat. The conflicts set up by the essays in Only Child, such as the unenviable decision an only must eventually make between parents and mate, played out beautifully in Washington Square.

On the whole, I would probably recommend Washington Square if you were simply looking for something well-done and eloquent to read and Only Child if you want something to talk to your only friends about or, if you are an only, something to make you worry to no end. (Doesn’t sound appealing? Better stick with the James, then.)

Since I can’t seem to access my shelf at right, I give you
Next Up: Footnote: A Curious History by Anthony Grafton.


Entry filed under: Non-fiction.

By Way of Introduction Corruption of an adult by a minor

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  November 3, 2008 at 1:11 am

    HEY. I have some Henry James coming up, and if I enjoy it, I will definitely check out Washington Square!

    The only child book sounds interesting, too, but I’m not sure I’d appreciate it as much as you did…though with your parental woes, your review made me glad I have a sister.

    I think that you are not the stereotypical only for many obvious reasons, but also because you realize that being an only child must have had some effect on you, and you recognize that having cousins and relatives isn’t the same.

    Also, you can be self-centered and bratty without being an only child — that’s also a typical youngest trait :P

    E-mail coming tomorrow, I promise, along with a full explanation.

  • 2. KT  |  November 3, 2008 at 1:13 am

    PS: When you sign in, do you not see a little set of tools next to the “Shelf” sections? If not, you can try going into “Customize” in the dashboard at the very top, and editing your shelf in the layout section. Sorry about that, buddy…

  • 3. Corey  |  November 3, 2008 at 1:56 am

    It’s always nice to hear I’m not a stereotypical only child and I think you’re right that “typical” onlies probably don’t sit around thinking about their experience and how it does or does not make them different. To me, the book was fascinating even as I often didn’t relate, but I too often wondered if it would have as much pull or interest for a non-only. I’ll have to foist in on my mother or something to see!

    But, yeah, definitely check out Washington Square. I really enjoyed it and it is a quick read.

    Also, I do not have the tools or the “Customize” tab for this blog. Does only the creator get these things? It may well be the case, since I do have them on my other blog.

  • 4. KT  |  November 3, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Ohhhh, I must be the administrator. I will fix that if I can. For now I have added that book to your shelf, but I am sure you have more coming up!

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  • […] books: Anne Fadiman’s perfect Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader and the thoughtful Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo edited by Deborah Cohen and Daphne Uviller. With its serious and compassionate look at […]

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