Thank you to both Edelweiss and Tantor Audio for allowing us to listen to Chanel Bonfire by Wendy Lawless. Based on the description of what Chanel Bonfire was about, I knew reading it would be a personal journey for me. Or perhaps, I thought, maybe her experiences would be so wild and crazy, mine may pale in comparison? It’s been a bit of an emotional roller coaster for me of late, so I was both drawn to and repelled by the premise of Chanel Bonfire.
Here is the description from Wendy’s website: A stunning memoir about an actress’s unconventional, heartbreaking childhood with an unstable alcoholic and suicidal mother — a real-life Holly Golightly turned Mommie Dearest — and the unusual strength that allowed her to rise above it all.
By the time Wendy Lawless turned seventeen, she’d known for quite some time that she didn’t have a normal mother. But that didn’t stop her from wanting one.
Georgann Rea didn’t bake cookies or go to PTA meetings; she wore a mink coat and always had a lit Dunhill plugged into her cigarette holder. She had slept with too many men, and some women, and she didn’t like dogs or children. Georgann had the ice queen beauty of a Hitchcock heroine and the cold heart to match.
In this evocative, darkly humorous memoir, Wendy deftly charts the highs and lows of growing up with her younger sister in the shadow of an unstable, fabulously neglectful mother. Georgann, a real-life Holly Golightly who constantly reinvents herself as she trades up from trailer-park to penthouse, suffers multiple nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts, while Wendy tries to hide the cracks in their fractured family from the rest of the world.
Chanel Bonfire depicts a childhood blazed through the refined aeries of The Dakota and the swinging townhouses of London, while the girls’ beautiful but damned mother desperately searches for glamour and fulfillment. Ultimately, they must choose between living their own lives and being their mother’s warden.
While Wendy’s mother is beyond unhinged and the level of her selfishness and narcissism is stunning, while listening I wondered if others reading, and those coming out of a more stable or “mother-loving” home-life, may have felt Wendy complained about her life? After all, she lived in New York (on Park Avenue), London, England, Boston, travelled to exotic vacation places like Morocco and got to wear designer clothes and hang with the jet-set crowd. But, while her mother may not have been very physically abusive, her level of selfishness, manipulation and narcissism is nothing at all, ever, to sneeze at. Coming of age and accepting a mature and more responsible role in this unstable and wildly confusing home does nothing to achieve a high level of self-esteem or allow for trust and the development of stable relationships.
Chanel Bonfire may have been an expose about Georgann, but I also found it to be a very touching coming of age tale for Wendy. What I thought would be a wildly different experience from mine turned out to be one where I strongly identified and shared many similar experiences with Wendy. Mind you I didn’t have the “happy hooker” for a mom, as Wendy referred to hers, but far too many other experiences were quite similar. Often I was giving imaginary fist-bumps and saying “I hear you sista!”
In the end, and heartbreakingly so, it was still only the money or the material possessions that made Georgann happy- this woman could have cared less about her children – she only wanted money, material possessions and the facade of well-to-do and a lofty lifestyle. An attention seeking, incredibly selfish woman that kept her two girls from their father for over a decade.
“I was a 19 year old idiot who had been playing the enabling eldest daughter to mother’s Joan Crawford for so long now I didn’t know any other way of life. “
During the final exchange between Wendy and her mother, when Wendy finally gives up and moves on, again it is just the money Georgann wanted, she could sincerely and honestly (and so painfully) care less about her children. They would never come first. Wendy rises above and finally moves on and takes the reins of her own life. To say I stood and applauded her final exchange with this woman would not really provide you an accurate visual.
The postscript is a mind-blowing, yet not unrealistic end to Wendy’s mother’s life. Alone, suffering from colon cancer, she died in her bed, (again, alone,) was not found for 4 days and lay in the morgue, unclaimed for 3 weeks. Boom! That’s what that felt like! Boom! Wow.
So while I thought that I might seek comfort in someone else’s pain or more harrowing experience, I found myself, still find myself, thinking about Wendy and her experiences with a woman that you struggle to call Mom. An excellent read. Thank you Wendy for sharing your story.