Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God, and Real Estate in a Small Town – by Sarah Payne Stuart – independent book review – Autobiography

Disclamer: This book is about the author growing up in the town of Concord, MA where I have lived for the past 37 years. Not surprisingly, this book has caused quite the buzz in Concord with everyone wanting to read it, including me. Now, after reading the book, I’m not sure it will be interesting to anyone who DOESN’T live in Concord. Because it’s not that good a book. Awarded two stars on Goodreads.

perfectlymiserableI don’t think the picture Stuart paints of Concord is any different than any other small, affluent New England town, or small town anywhere, for that matter. Stuart claims Concord and its deeply-rooted Protestant values have been the most powerful influences of her life. I just don’t buy it.

Instead, I see a story about a woman who is born with more gifts, resources and abilities than most, but seems unable to appreciate anything until long after it has passed. That includes her parents, her time spent mothering three children, her affluence, everything.

Sure she faces her share of family difficulties along the way. Who doesn’t? And although the book repeatedly references Stuart’s longing to fit in and feel loved and accepted, her writing isn’t emotional and doesn’t generate empathy. Instead, it’s glib and comes across as relentlessly self-absorbed. So, as a reader, it is hard to feel her pain.

Concord, MA Town Center

If this were a standard autobiography, I would simply walk away thinking the author has had a fairly uninteresting life. But Stuart tries to lend weight to her book by drawing comparisons between her life experiences and those of other, more famous Concord writers like Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Stuart argues that all of them were victims of the values perpetuated by Concord. Well, I don’t think so. If Louisa’s father Bronson Alcott suffered money problems and Sarah Stuart kept buying bigger houses than she could afford — to me that’s not the fault of community values. Just bad personal decision making.

And if Stuart imagines that feelings of acceptance and love can somehow attach themselves to her, based on where she happens to be born – then I have a message for her. Deeply held personal attitudes about life and one’s ability to make substantial changes are usually the result of years of hard work, often requiring the assistance of a good therapist.