Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: White Dresses by Mary Pflum Peterson

So many things can trigger our memories. Clothing in particular seems to hold our memories in the very weave of its fabric. Pull out a school picture and remember how much you used to love that oversized, geometric-print sweater in the photo and be prepared for the memories of seventh grade to come flooding in. Look in your closet at the cream colored sweater with pearl beading that you wore to Homecoming your junior year of high school when the theme was black and white. Slip on (or just try to if pregnancies have made your feet grow) the small, embellished heels that matched the bodice of your wedding dress which you wore for your wedding. Each of these articles of clothing holds not just the memory of the day they were worn but also remembrances of so much of that time in your life, the things you did, the places you went, and the people you loved. In Mary Pflum Peterson's life, it is the white dresses of christening, confirmation, graduation, marriage, and other significant life events that pull the stories from her in White Dresses, a memoir of her mother and herself.

Opening with Mary's desperate need to find the white dresses that embodied her mother's love for her amidst the dirt and hoarded detritus of her childhood home, the dresses are talismans. Each chapter opens with a brief memory of the significant day one of the white dresses was worn but then expands outward to describe so much more. Despite all of the promise of the celebratory dresses, neither Anne Diener Pflum nor Mary Pflum Peterson had the happiest of childhoods. Little Anne was an interloper in her parents’ marriage, merely a tangible sign of her mother’s deep passion for her father. Toward her children, Anne’s mother was cold and un-maternal and Anne spent her entire life striving to earn her mother’s love. Her emotionally barren childhood, followed by several emotionally abusive years as a nun and a hollow, failed marriage to an unhappy and volatile closeted gay man formed her into the mother that Mary Pflum Peterson knew. Mary was a product of this unhappy marriage and she grew up not only with the toxicity of their mistakes, confusion, and anger but with their eventual divorce and her mother’s financial struggle in a home that started off merely cluttered and dirty but became completely buried under mountains of things and filthy without being able to do anything about it. Even as Anne remained trapped with her own demons, she pushed Mary to go to college and find the success that she has today even as Anne worried that by doing so Mary would leave her behind. Their relationship was a complex and complicated one marked by deep love and failure, pride and frustration.

Peterson tells her mother's story and her own here through these special white dresses. She uncovers secrets and things she couldn't have understood about her mother at the time. She always knew that something was wrong but not the extent of it. Her recounting of history is unvarnished and honest, a loving tribute to a warm and caring mother who was forever haunted by a lack she felt her entire life. The symbolism of the twelve white dresses, their potential and possibilities, their announcement of a new beginning are poignant indeed when contrasted with the disappointments that mar many of the occasions they mark or the aftermath of those occasions. But if Anne Diener Pflum's life was crippled by depression and her later hoarding, if it was so unhappy despite its potential and the potential of all those white dress new beginnings, she gave her daughter a rare gift in her own set of white dresses: that of freedom and, ultimately, of the happiness she herself never found. Peterson writes sensitively about her mother, the past, and growing up as her mother's daughter. She captures the strong bond and love between them even as she is unable to help her mother overcome her own demons. The narrative structure is different and an interesting concept well handled. It is a little slow to start and the pain and lovelessness of Anne's upbringing is hard to witness, as is her ashamed descent into hoarding. But the love that shines through the writing and the well-researched evenhanded balance with which Peterson tells this family tale will draw the reader into this exquisite, painful memoir.

For more information about Mary Pflum Peterson and the book, like her Facebook page. Check out the book's Good Reads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

1 comment:

  1. Painful seems like the right word for this memoir, but sometimes those are the kind that see the most redemption in the end. I'm interested to see how things turn out for her by the end of her story.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!


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