Tuesday, December 22, 2009

REVIEW: The Red Leather Diary, by Lily Koppel

The Red Leather Diary, by Lily Koppel. Published 2009 by Harper Perennial. Nonfiction.

The Red Leather Diary is the story of a woman named Florence Wolfson who was a young and affluent New Yorker in the 1920s and '30s; author and reporter Lily Koppel rescued her diary from a dustbin and, fascinated by Florence's day to day recollections of her daily life including parties, theater and nightlife, tracked her down, got to know her and got her permission to create this book.

Florence's diary covers her late adolescence, from age 14 to 17, and the narrative continues into her early twenties. She's a precocious, intelligent girl who went to college early and was part of the burgeoning literary and theatrical scene in 1920s New York. She got to know actresses and writers and intellectuals; she worked on her college literary magazine and dreamt of a career as a writer. Later, she voyaged to Europe by herself, where she met a dashing Italian prince and wound her way across the continent before coming home to settle into marriage and adulthood.

When The Red Leather Diary first came out, I was eager to read it, but now I admit I was disappointed. Koppel's writing is rather spare and journalistic; it seemed to me that such a florid life might have been rendered in a prose more colorful than what Koppel chooses most of the time. Florence herself, while I'm sure a lovely woman, comes across in the diary as a vapid and self-centered girl, overprivileged and underinvovled in the world around her. Obsessed with clothes, boys and parties, she's certainly not interested in politics or social issues and held an isolationist and self-absorbed view of the world.

And Koppel's approach doesn't help. She underplays or ignores so many issues that could have enriched this otherwise straightforward story. The issue of Jewish assimilation is explored only obliquely; I read dozens of pages before I realized that Florence was even Jewish. Koppel makes repeated references to "the old country," where Florence's family came from, but never tells us what this "old country" was. When you're talking about an early 20th century American immigrant family, this is not a minor issue. Some of Florence's adventures were downright scary and I was often stunned by Florence's naivete. For example, while Florence is exploring Austria in the 1930s she befriends a pair of Austrian men who think she is "the perfect Aryan girl"; "Florence's parents," Koppel tells us, "had forbidden her to go to Germany. Usually one to speak her mind, Florence was reluctant to tell them that she was Jewish." No, really? "Reluctant" shouldn't even begin to cover it. She also manages to discuss in rather explicit detail the comings and goings of Florence's rather active sex life, again without addressing any larger issues. Just the facts, please- I guess.

I think Koppel and I have a fundamental difference of perspective when it comes to Florence and her adventures, and this difference explains my reaction to the book. Where she sees bravery and chutzpah, I see narcissism; where she sees brilliance, I see adolescent drama and angst typical of a bright girl with too much time on her hands and not enough to do:
In a blind and utter stupor- all day- home is wretched- to pity my parents is futile and destructive- and unless I fly from here- I think I have been cheated of rich beauty.
Show me a teenager who hasn't expressed these same thoughts. Impossible, I say. Impossible. I will say that The Red Leather Diary does present a vivid and interesting portrait of the New York City of the time, and anyone interested in New York history would enjoy the book for that reason. I would also recommend it for readers of light nonfiction in general, and those who enjoy reading about women's lives at different times in history. I just wish that Florence had written her own story instead, and applied her own self-awareness and hard-won wisdom to the telling. Material at the end, when the reader gets a little between-the-lines insight into the complicated and very different woman Florence became, suggests that such a book would be a wonderful, rewarding read, but that's not the book I read.

If you're interested, you can read a presentation by Koppel and an interview with Koppel conducted by Heidi Estrin of The Book of Life Podcast by clicking on the links above.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.