An Unflattering Portrait

Rosemary Mahoney’s genre-bending book, A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman, creates a fascinating portrait of the famous writer at the same time that it tells the story of the teen Mahoney was in the summer of 1978.

Cover of "A Likely Story: One summer with...

Cover via Amazon

Mahoney was 17 and went to work as a housekeeper for Lillian Hellman on Martha’s Vineyard that summer. This book explores her experience with Hellman. Because Hellman was famous and a larger-than-life character, the book operates a bit as a biography, but truly it’s Mahoney’s coming-of-age memoir.

Her father had passed away, her mother was an alcoholic, and Rosemary needed a job. She was about as equipped to be a housekeeper as I would have been at 17, which is to say, not at all. She had read Hellman’s memoir An Unfinished Woman and idolized her.

If you thought you knew Hellman, you will soon learn that there is a lot more to find out. The picture Mahoney creates of the older woman is not positive or uplifting, but it certainly glitters with star power.  Under Mahoney’s pen, Hellman is not a nice person, and Mahoney grows to despise her; even so, there is some sort of attachment between the two women. After all, Mahoney was completely unsuited for the job and could (should?) have been fired by Hellman at any moment.  A very complicated relationship shapes up as the book goes on.

Reading what Mahoney went through with Hellman, made me think there is some truth to this expression: whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. Mahoney learned invaluable lessons that summer–maybe most importantly, not to fear anyone else and to have confidence.

The question I ask myself about every memoir is: what did I learn?

The easy answer is that I learned about two women who have a lot more guts than I have–both Hellman and Mahoney. After all, look at the guts it took to take a job Mahoney knew she couldn’t perform.

The more difficult answer is that I learned about the soft and malleable boundaries of memoir. Memoir can incorporate other genres. It can have different textures. This book is thickly textured with public knowledge, the details of celebrity life, and a rich and lush setting of life on the beach. Most memoirs I read have textures that look and feel much different. I learned that memoir needs to look and feel and sound like the subject matter.

If you’re writing a memoir that involves a famous person, I would recommend reading this book to see how Mahoney handles the job. She’s a master at it.

If you want to read a nonfiction story that is a little bit juicy about a celebrity, head right to this book!

If you just want a good read, this is it.


If you want to look at Mahoney’s other books, check out her website.

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Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

13 responses to “An Unflattering Portrait

  1. I love this sentence: “This book is thickly textured with public knowledge, the details of celebrity life, and a rich and lush setting of life on the beach.” I will look into this book and what it implies about the memoir genre.

  2. Oh, this one sounds good, Luanne! I think I’ll be sending you my Amazon/Kindle bill! 🙂 Great review!

  3. I looked at the amazon reviews for this book and there is quite a range. Most are favourable, but one made the point that Lillian Hellman didn’t deserve the negative treatment she got in the in book; that she was blindsided with it and had no way to defend herself in print. Good point, I thought. Anyone could write anything they want and what are you going to do about it? But that is only one aspect of the situation. Most readers thought it was worth reading.

    • Luanne

      Hmm. Anneli, I think Hellman set herself up as a public figure and a character and also a public liar. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for her. It was kind of payback time. That said, if I knew her, I might feel otherwise. I always end up feeling sorry for everyone . . . .

  4. I echo Jill. My list keeps growing thanks to your reviews!

  5. Sounds fantastic! You are making my must-read list way too long.

  6. Very interesting to read this about Ms. Hellman and also, like the way the memoir can be read in the ‘eyes of the beholder.’ I liked the Julia Child, Julie story but that was true, wasn’t it? You are giving us so many opportunities to learn about this genre, Luanne! All are fascinating posts!!

    • Luanne

      Wasn’t it true? I saw the movie and thought it was really engaging, but now I don’t remember what I discovered when I read up about it. Wasn’t the stuff about Julia Child factual?

      • I think that it told me a very nice part of Julia Child’s life and I believe it was true, too. I just never read the book so didn’t want to ‘assume’ anything, while commenting. To my mother, before she saw the movie, Julia Child seemed snobby and using her haughty voice on her t.v. show did not make her, to my Mom, ‘likeable.’ I thought it was mainly an accent so did not think this way. I felt the story about her husband endeared me to him, too. She was trying so hard in a ‘man’s world’ of chef-dom, that she became a good example of triumph for women, I felt. I also think they mentioned, somewhere, that she felt like an ‘ugly, gawky duckling’ and that her marriage and work gave her better self esteem. It is interesting that through your comments, Ms. Hellman may or may not deserve the words in the memoir, but somehow I believe that she did. The old expression, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” seems to apply to Mahoney’s memoir about Lillian Hellman. Get some rest, we are having 9 hour days all next week, so I need to go home and relax, too! Robin

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