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Confetti - Do It For Real

My Improper Mother and Me

18 December 10 words: Esther Parry
Back before tummy tucks and plastic surgery, people exercised to lose weight using the Lotte Berk method.
Before tummy tucks and plastic surgery, people actually used to exercise to lose weight...

My Improper Mother and Me is a well-written, enjoyable read that serves two purposes; a look at life as the child of a famous figure and the story of an ordinary woman making a life for herself. Esther Fairfax manages to blend and balance these two strands effortlessly, producing a rewarding story that is both familiar and intriguing.

The book starts with a potted history of her mother, Lotte Berk, pioneer of a much-copied exercise system that honed and toned the rich and famous of the 1960s through to the late 1980s. Ms Berk’s background was as quixotic and troubled as her personality and her daughter offers a highly perceptive insight into what and who shaped a woman who was deeply dysfunctional yet brilliantly successful and motivated. Berk worked first as a dancer and performer alongside her husband, Fairfax’s father, in Europe between the wars, and this glimpse into the louche, bohemian world of casual sex, fluid, sometimes dubious sexualities, drug-taking, petty crime and financial irresponsibility of performers and artistic types of this period is fascinating in its parallels with the excesses of modern stars and wannabes.

As we learn more about Lotte Berk and her obsession with the body beautiful, we see how her vision foreshadowed our current fixation with physical perfection and yet was mired in its time by its very nature. In this modern age, where the quick-fix of treatments and surgery has come to represent a completely normal and routine response to fixing bodily dissatisfaction, her training methods as, arguably, the doyenne of the ‘no pain, no gain’ brigade, seems prescient in her quest for the perfect body yet anachronistic and unreasonably difficult to the modern woman wishing to change how she looks.

Nothing and nobody could ever be good enough for Berk; sadly, that included her own daughter. Fairfax does not shy away from laying bare her mother’s monstrous ego and disdain for the feelings and needs for others but she is careful to explain why she understood her mother’s motivations and compulsions and to supply examples of her being caring and thoughtful. We see throughout how Fairfax came to accept that her mother could not offer the usual ideal of nurturing, tender, consistent mothering, and instead, loved her for the glamour, fun, generosity and haphazard occasions of lavish attention that she feels proved that Berk did the best to be a good mother in the only ways she was capable of.

'Her background was as quixotic and troubled as her personality. Her daughter offers a highly perceptive insight into a woman who was deeply dysfunctional yet brilliantly successful and motivated.'

It is clear that whilst she is a calm and open young woman, her turbulent upbringing affected her deeply. With two self-absorbed parents who asked her to keep quiet about childhood abuse so as not to affect their ambitions and who were more concerned with receiving affection and attention than giving it, she married young, to an unsuitable man and had two sons. Whilst the section dealing with her early married life and introduction to motherhood is the most personal and touching, in terms of her finally being able to have space to form her own character away from the all-consuming personality of her mother, it was, for me, one of the weakest. Her husband was a poet and a drunkard and they lived in a series of ramshackle cottages without proper amenities and little money, and her struggle to run the home, provide for her children and deal with her husband’s unpredictable and thoughtless ways felt very similar to other stories I have read about dissatisfied young women being married to boozy poets in the post-war era, such as those of Sylvia Plath and Caitlin Thomas, and it suffered in comparison in both detail and writing style. However, this is a minor gripe and it is certainly not Fairfax’s fault that her life at this time was similar to that of more well-known women with more extreme personalities than her own.

The latter half of the book sees the author battling with not only the myriad difficulties of normal life but the added pressures and problems of dealing with a famous mother whose star starts to lose its shine and her mind, its grip. Fairfax trained in her mother’s system and became successful in her own right (which her mother cannot decide to be proud or resentful of) setting up her own classes, writing a guide book on the technique and eventually opening her own studio. She also divorces, her sons grow up and leave home and she embarks on a passionate but unsuitable love affair. As she enters late middle-age, she seems to finally feel at home in her own skin and enjoys life as a landlady and grandmother, whilst teaching her classes. Sadly, this coincides with her mother’s physical aging and mental deterioration, which presents itself as paranoia, hysteria, confusion and incredible rage, which almost ruins the business she has devoted her whole life to. Eventually, Berk is admitted to a nursing home where she continues to rule the roost and the reader, echoing Fairfax’s own emotions, and feels a curious mixture of relief and sadness at this huge, one-of-a-kind character so diminished and enfeebled.

For all her mother’s egomania and her father’s detached and occasionally questionable part in her upbringing, Fairfax comes across throughout the whole book as a big-hearted, forgiving, understanding woman of great sensitivity and perception. She is as quick to list her own flaws and mistakes as she is those of others and I feel that this is what makes the book a very rounded read, for, with a mother like Berk, it would’ve been all too easy (and possibly justified) to write a Mommie Dearest-style hatchet job. Her story is interesting and her writing style easy and engaging, enabling you to care about her whether you have heard of her famous mother or not. Perhaps, in the end, that is all that any child of a well-known figure wants and needs.

My Improper Mother and Me by Esther Fairfax, is out now in paperback (Pomona, £7.99).

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