IN HIS INDISPENSABLE INTRODUCTION to The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate warns against “unproblematically self-assured, self-contained, self-satisfied” essayists who produce shallow, sugarcoated nonfiction offering facile answers and easy resolution, arguing instead for literary nonfiction that mimics the density and uncertainty of real life.
Ben Watt has surely taken this kind of advice deep into the heart. His latest memoir, Romany and Tom, is a beautifully written love story filled with pain, truth, raw emotion, and endless complexity.
Watt’s first book, Patient: The True Story of a Rare Illness, chronicling his battle against a life-threatening autoimmune disease, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, but Watt is best known as a musician and songwriter — one-half of the ’80s alt-pop duo Everything But The Girl. I’m too old to be a big fan of his music, but count me a fan of his writing, front-row center, wearing my “I [Heart] Ben” T-shirt, seeking an autograph at every stage door.
The heart of Watt’s memoir Romany and Tom is just such a story, centered on how he and a half-brother end up the occasionally reluctant caregivers to two obstreperous aging parents — but this story rises above the others for two reasons:
First, Watt writes with an exceptionally clear eye and a delightfully lyric ear. This is his legacy, perhaps since Romany, his mother, was herself an accomplished writer, and his father, Tom, also an acclaimed musician in his day.
Second, Watt invariably probes below the surface story. Another skillful memoirist, Cheryl Strayed, has written of the nonfiction writer’s “savage desire to know more about what is already known.” So it is with Watt, who digs down to discover questions he didn’t know he had — and before long the reader is as hungry as he is to understand the countless secrets and inconsistencies of a marriage that never seemed easy or made much sense.
Romany and Tom begins in May 2006, with Tom, Watt’s father, now 80 and in a hospital in Bristol, England, his breathing “a flimsy wheeze of air; a faint wind whistling through a crack in an upstairs door.” Early on in the book, Romany, suffering her own vicissitudes of age, pays a brief, melancholy visit to her ailing husband while Ben is in the room. “My dad rolled his head to look at her and smiled,” Watt writes. “There was no detectable rancour. It appeared affectionate.” And then:
She pulled a slow-motion rueful smile in return, dipping her head to one side then closing both eyes slowly and opening them again at him, as you might at a poorly child. But then a little murmur escaped from her closed mouth accompanied by a barely audible quick out-breath through the nose. I’ve heard it before; it says: ‘Well, look at me, who’d have thought I’d be here in this situation?’
Such is Watt’s ability to draw character, to perceive the slightest nuance of facial expression and gesture, and to bring small moments alive on the page.
The situation is, as the British say, quite the bollox: both parents are in and out of hospital rooms and rehabilitation centers, both are heavy drinkers (downing “large tumblers of brandy, not poured as a shot or even a double, but like full glasses of water”) and clearly depressed, both seem tired of the marriage and of one another, and yet they are so deeply bonded that they continue to work in tandem to thwart the wishes of Ben and half-brother Roly at every turn.
Here is Watt, reflecting on that bond:
She kissed him tenderly on the temple, and for a brief moment, as her eyes closed and her lips touched his skin, her affection for whoever was in her mind — him, or a version of him — seemed unconditional. I looked at them. They were like two old inosculated trees: different stock but rooted in the same ground, until the branches and trunks had curled and conjoined, then grafted together. I wondered what kind of axe it would take to split them.
The memoir travels backward and forward in time, in and out of Watt’s earliest childhood memories, through his own musical life and the ups and downs of his parents’ later years, and eventually back before he was born, as he attempts to untangle the mystery behind Tom and Romany’s remarkable bond.
We discover that Watt’s parents led impressive, accomplished lives. Tom was a working-class jazz musician from Glasgow who went on to become a celebrated band leader, composer, and arranger, though his career went into sharp decline when live ensemble jazz was displaced by rock ’n’ roll. (Ironically, the pop craze that destroyed Tom’s career later spawned Ben Watt’s storied musical success.) Romany was a distinguished actress on the London stage and radio, and later a celebrity journalist and confidante of Elizabeth Taylor (during the Richard Burton years).
But these career highlights occurred, for the most part, well before Ben was born, and as age caught up with the two, Romany turned to her scrapbooks and Tom grew increasingly bitter and remote. Watt, meanwhile, was repeatedly stymied in his attempts to monitor their failing health:
Care workers and link workers occasionally looked in but my dad was too proud or low-spirited to talk to them, retiring to his room at the first sound of them in the hall, leaving my mum to make small talk for ten minutes and then send them away. They were much more interested in the little visits from Luis, the porter, who would pop out to the corner shop for a half-bottle of emergency Scotch or brandy; they had him in their pocket pretty quickly.
The more his parents seemed to slip into the distance of age and infirmity, the more Ben stubbornly went after answers to lifelong questions. Lucky for him (and for us readers), Romany kept not just mementos of her stage career and her brushes with celebrity but a gift box stuffed with letters, some never sent, and journals, many of them annotated with afterthoughts and instructions, such as “Read these, then throw them away.”
Watt eventually comes to see these letters and notes as “signposts that tease and hint and cajole, and ultimately lead to the conclusion that one day she wanted it all known and understood.”
[…] the contents of the gift box represent the very heart of how she saw herself, as she was a furious editor as well as an archivist, often weeding out irrelevance and dead wood, throwing away second-rate features she had written, or inconsequential letters, as though she were aware she would be judged soon and was clearing a path to the essential stuff.
What Watt eventually learns about the early days of his parents’ marriage comes as a surprise, to him and to us, and though the revelation sheds some light on Romany and Tom’s tumultuous relationship and barely hidden resentment, it also deepens our understanding of its complexity. Every life, it seems, is filled with secrets, and these secrets spawn further secrets, and so on, and so forth — on and on to the day we die.
But not everyone can write about his parents’ secrets with such power and intelligence. Watt is not the “self-assured, self-contained, self-satisfied” narrator that Lopate warns against, and he is certainly not the hero of this story. Neither is he the victim: instead, he portrays himself as all too human and flawed, now and then anxious to live his own life; not act as surrogate parent to the parents who sometimes weren’t such great caregivers themselves.
Near the book’s end, jet-lagged from recent travel but guilty about his extended absence, Watt is driving to Bristol to visit his parents in their care home.
I drove round the roundabout under the motorway and missed the exit. I drove round again, hugging the inside rail, and missed it again. This time deliberately. And then I did it again. This time indecisively. And then I just wanted to lie down and sleep. A metal signpost in the tall grass of the roundabout flashed by amid the trees and the underpass: Welcome to the Field of Hope. And then I was shouting at myself inside the car, ‘Why, why, why?’ and had started to drive back the way I came.
In Romany and Tom, Watt captures what real life feels like, and he captures it with breathtaking clarity, beauty, and precision.
If Romany did indeed want “it all known and understood” one day, she can rest well.