Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Comedy, drama ring true in searing memoir

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Chanel Bonfire: A Memoir

By Wendy Lawless

Gallery, 295 pages, $29

TO parody Tolstoy, normal families are normal in normal ways but crazy families are crazy in different ways.

And boy, oh boy, was Wendy Lawless's family different. That difference was very destructive to the emotional well-being of Wendy and her younger sister, Robin. And that difference had a name: Georgann Rea, a word jumble of a moniker very apt for an emotional force of nature, a real-life woman who seems to have escaped from the pages of a Tennessee Williams play and plunked her petite self down like a tornado into the mind of the reader.

All daughters think their mothers strange and embarrassing, but Wendy Lawless still has a hell of a tale to tell, with a strong emphasis on the hell.

Lawless is an actress most famous for appearing on Broadway in The Heidi Chronicles. You could say drama was in her family's blood. Had her histrionic mother stayed with Wendy's biological father, a minor actor named James Lawless, she might have led a life more akin to a Eugene O'Neill play, full of poverty and tantrums.

But Georgann's whirlwind affair with Broadway producer Oliver Rea propelled the family into showbiz orbit and Georganna's mania to full-blown lunacy.

It might seem as if dysfunction would be easier to handle when you're steaming along on the QE2 or in the many other tony locales that make the book sometimes read like the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: Extreme Edition. But the consistent quality of dysfunction is that it's never easy to handle, and the last thing an indulgent mind like Georgann's needed was an unending cash flow.

Enabling runs riot, as Wendy, Robin and Georgann feed each other's needs and worst habits. It's hard to describe the prose as breezy with the rough crossings that are laid out on page after page. But the success of the book does lie in a skipping style that is glamorous, ironic and funny.

Here's an average evening at the Lawless house:

"My chest felt twisty as I watched the men in white uniforms with blue jackets wheel her down the hallway and out of the apartment. I believed Mother was safe with the calm, quiet stretcher men and their nicely combed hair and castdown eyes, but I wondered where they were taking her, and what they would do. Did they have some magic way of waking her up -- a special drink, true love's kiss? Would they put her in a glass box like Snow White while she slept? I felt anxious as the questions kept coming. How long would she be gone? What would I tell my sister?"

This incident occurred when Wendy was nine. Her mother would consume Wendy, vampire-like, for most of her adult life, until the predictable ending finally arrives.

In a time when memoirs of high-concept, low-functioning families have been called out for playing fast and loose with reality, the comedy and the drama in this searing book ring true. But because of that, despite the winning prose, you'll be glad to close the book on Georgann Rea -- and maybe with this cathartic volume, Wendy Lawless can too.

Al Rae is a Winnipeg comedian who has struggled with mental illness.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2013 J9

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