The Astor Orphan by Alexandra Aldrich (2 out of 5)
This little memoir got my attention right away when we got it Monday. I told my coworkers, “I’ll get this done in a hour.” One hour, 15 minutes to be exact. It is a quick read, although it frustrated me in parts. The author is a direct descendant of John Jacob Astor, he of the infamous Astor clan, famous for being the first multi-millionaire in the United States. He was a fur trader, businessman, and yes, mentally not with the program and more than a bit of a pompous ass. (His nickname was “Jack Ass”). Most of the Astor family tree is littered with nuts, and not the type that make up your garden variety trail mix. Their family name is well known in the United States, although it has waned greatly in the last fifty years. The cover promises “a cross between Jane Eyre and Running with Scissors.” Running With Scissors? Sold. One of my favorite memoirs of all time. (yes, memoir, not book. the publisher can suck it on that, the judge ruled in Burrough’s favor. Not sure what I’m talking about? If you care, Google Running With Scissors lawsuit.), so if you threw that in with a classic strange thoroughfare like Jane Eyre, it’s got to be great, right? Uh…not as much as I would have hoped for.
Aldrich tells about her childhood from the age of 10-14, in a family of blue bloods that are in financial straits, not to mention mental decline. There are several problems with this. You know going in, from reading the book jacket, that the financial dynasty of the Astors has long fallen by the wayside. However, Aldrich speaks quite a bit of whining about money, chasing her grandma for money, having her grandma pay for music lessons, etc. There’s almost a tone of entitlement to that money throughout the book. Given that a lot of the selling point of the memoir is about the family downfall in the status cloud, it’s ironic that she seems to be taking on a tone of expecting money to be handed out to her simply because she is a family member. That could be a result of her immaturity at that young age, but she spends half of the book implying that she is more mature than your usual 10-14 year old. So you have a mixed message right there. And I’ll be totally honest with you. Reading those parts of the book, she came off to me like a spoiled rich kid. Not appealing in the ways of reading.
The family? Oh, they’re a lot of nut bags, but it’s nothing that you wouldn’t expect of a filthy rich bunch of elitists in that time period- when I speak of the Astors, I mean the golden days of the clan, as in the grandfather, not the cast of characters here. The mother doesn’t care about Alexandra, the dad has a mistress, her grandmother is an alcoholic who tries to play parent to Alexandra. Sounds like a lot of families in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s? At least in all of the history that I’m familiar with and have read about, none of these are dissimilar family traits. It sounds like they’re a bunch of petulant whiny windbags. I get the general feeling reading this that Alexandra perhaps wrote of the version of the Astors to try to come to peace with the loathsome human beings they were. Or, maybe her therapist suggested a memoir to work through some things. Or, she just picked a time period and decided to write and publish it. Maybe she’ll make some dinero on this and not have to relive doing it as a 14-year old Alexandra once had to.
The question I had when I set this book down was “Why did she write this?” It’s such a quick read. The pictures, for the record, are wonderful. I’m also biased because I love vintage, black and white photographs from any time period. I didn’t come away from this with a sense of accomplishment for having read it, nor do I feel like I learned any history about one of the great American families of the early 1900’s. She lives in poverty on the grounds of the estate. Not surprised, it happened to a lot of super-rich American families. Where am I supposed to feel a kinship with Alexandra? I do at moments, but it’s fleeting. Much like the moments in the book where I wholeheartedly fell into it. It felt like I was falling into an endless bag of Pop Chips at times. Satisfying for a bit, but cardboard texture and not a lot of substance in the end.