Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Auntie Mame, by Patrick Dennis

Staff Review, by Chris Saliba

The very antidote to straitlaced 1950s America, Auntie Mame runs her own race, often getting herself into many a zany adventure.  

Auntie Mame was a huge, million-seller success upon its release in 1955. It was then turned into a stage play, then a film, starring the peerless Rosalind Russell as Auntie Mame. The stage and film versions sanitised a lot of the dialogue and situations from the novel. The Mame that appears on the page is more risque, brasher, and enjoys mocking middle-class American tastes and hypocrisies.

The story starts when Patrick is ten years old. His father has died and as a consequence he has become the ward of his Auntie Mame. Money has been put away in trust with the Knickerbocker Bank, with the straitlaced Mr Babcock holding the purse  strings.

Young Patrick arrives at Auntie Mame’s fabulously flamboyant Beekman place apartment with his nanny, the God fearing Irishwoman Nora Muldoon. Having never met his aunt before, Patrick doesn’t know what to expect. When the Japanese helpmeet, Ito, opens the door, Nora almost faints away, thinking they’ve fallen into the clutches of an opium den. Mame is in her Oriental phase, her black haired lacquered and waving about a bamboo cigarette holder. On this particular day one of her famous parties is in full swing and the guest list is about as eclectic as you can get.

The novel is narrated episodically, by the adult Patrick looking back, taking the reader right up to his marriage. In-between, we get the full gamut of Mame’s zany and nutty adventures. In essence she’s a character that is completely liberated from the binding conventionality of 1950s America. Nauseated by the idea of sending Patrick to a Protestant school, she lies to Mr Babcock and sends him to one of her ‘progressive’ schools. When staying with a conventional American family, she mocks the rooms Patrick and herself are assigned.

“Gracious,” Auntie Mame squealed. “Mine is so feminine and Patrick’s is so masculine.”

American academic Camille Paglia has likened Mame to Cleopatra. The hedonistic queen of legend is perhaps an apt comparison. Mame is all feverish energy and zero remorse over past mistakes. She moves on quickly, seeking intellectual, cultural, sensory and romantic highs wherever possible. Life is for living. Her effect as a literary character is entirely liberating. Reading Auntie Mame is an exhilarating experience.

Auntie Mame, by Patrick Dennis. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780141194127  RRP: $24.95

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