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Archive for Sunday, January 7, 2007

Calvin Trillin tenderly remembers late wife in ‘About Alice’

January 7, 2007

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If you had to choose just one, would you rather be loved, but not understood; or understood, but not really loved?

That question, raised last spring in the comic novel "Which Brings Me to You," is a hard one to answer.

Alice Stewart Trillin never needed to.

She was lucky enough to have been both.

And to have a husband who could chronicle their 36-year marriage in just 78 pages, with tenderness and honesty and grace. (It is an expanded version of a piece that appeared in March in The New Yorker.)

He is Calvin "Bud" Trillin, one of America's most versatile and amusing writers, a novelist, memoirist, essayist, journalist and satirical "deadline poet" for The Nation on political matters. As anyone who has read the Kansas City, Mo., native's books about food and family, such as "Alice, Let's Eat" and "Travels With Alice," knows, she was his muse, but not in some lofty, goddess-wafting-in-the-clouds kind of way.

Herself a respected writer, editor and educator, but first and foremost a common-sensically wise person, Alice was his first and best reader, and her clear-eyed and always helpful assessments of his work never upset the equilibrium of their marriage. That was a blessing to them both, as any writer - or spouse - can appreciate.

And, without doubt, "About Alice" (Random House, $14.95) is the book he wishes he never had to write. Part eulogy, part love letter, part celebration and part valediction, this book comes five years after her death and is a tribute to a marriage made, if not in heaven, then somewhere pretty darn close.

Alice - the book is so personal that it seems fitting to refer to both Trillins by their first names - died on Sept. 11, 2001. How her husband and daughters and myriad friends coped with such personal grief on the day of America's most public tragedy is almost unimaginable.

About 11 years into their marriage, Alice, a nonsmoker, developed lung cancer. She survived for 25 more years, but the radiation that saved her also damaged her heart severely, which ultimately caused her death. Calvin is a master of gentle irony as a writer, but that was irony at its most savage.

Yet nothing in the book is bitter, although it's obvious that the passage of five years has helped - just a bit - to dull the sharp edge of grief. Instead, what is communicated is wonder, gratitude and love, always shadowed by sadness. You get the distinct feeling that Alice was hovering over the manuscript, making her usual savvy suggestions and steering Calvin away from anything that might register as maudlin.

Maudlin was never his style, or hers.

In a book replete with anecdotes, Calvin captures Alice's sparkle and spunk. Once, after he had given a speech, someone in the audience asked how Alice felt about the way her husband portrayed her. Calvin said she thought she came across like "a dietitian in sensible shoes," and indeed, in his writings, she often was given the down-to-earth George Burns role to his wackier Gracie Allen.

Then Alice was asked the same question.

"She just leaned over and took off one of her shoes that looked like they cost about the amount of money required in some places to tide a family of four over for a year or two - and smiling, waved it in the air."

Her point being, Calvin writes, "that the people whose exposure to her had been through my stories didn't know her."

Thanks to "About Alice," they do now.

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