Posted Friday, Oct. 2, 2009, at 11:45 AM
I've been obsessed with WASP culture for as long as I can remember. Maybe it was because I watched too many Whit Stillman movies at an impressionable age, or maybe it's because I visited too many homes of gilded age robber barons on historical field trips. More likely it's because I was raised in a town that was restricted to non-WASPs until the '60s, and they were my best friends and early crushes. In any event, I was looking forward to reading Tad Friend's Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor , because I thought it would reveal the inner workings of a group I've long observed from the outside.
And it does provide compelling ethnographical details-how high WASPs say "coffin" rather than "casket" because the former is "the earliest "Anglo-Saxon word available;" how they will discuss the cost of heating oil but never their yearly salaries; and why they prefer ungainly, massively slobbering dogs as pets. ("[A]n emblem of our pastoral and sporting roots, and because they help us get muddy. They are transitional objects, allowing the otherwise unseemly romp and snuggle.") But the memoir is not just a litany of amusing affectations. It's the story of the Friend family, and more importantly, the benign neglect school of WASP parenting.
The allowance of physical muddiness but not emotional muddiness is key to the WASP parent/child relationship. Cheerful Money is at its best when Friend writes about his attempts to express those messier feelings with his forebears. Early on in the book, Friend describes a sort of "intervention" that he and his siblings have with his widowed father. Tad and his siblings Timmie and Pier tell their father that they want to spend more time with him, that they want him to be more present in their lives. Their father misunderstands, and thinks his children want to hear more about his quotidian outings with his new girlfriend, (whom he only refers to formally, by her full name) Mary French. Friend writes, "We glanced at each other: No, we want you to pay closer attention to us . .. None of us had had the heart, or nerve, to correct him."
In this way, Cheerful Money is relatable even for those without a vested interest in high WASP trappings. The loneliness in the space between parents and children is something even people without threadbare L.L. Bean sweaters and last names for first names can relate to.