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A House in St John's Wood Summary and Reviews

A House in St John's Wood

In Search of My Parents

by Matthew Spender

A House in St John's Wood by Matthew Spender X
A House in St John's Wood by Matthew Spender
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  • Published in USA  Oct 2015
    448 pages
    Genre: Biography/Memoir

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Book Summary

Drawing on unpublished letters and diaries, family keepsakes and youthful memories, Matthew Spender tells the story of a singular family in the midst of its own cold war, as the artistic world of mid-century London circled around them.

Stephen Spender's life, with all its secrets, successes, and contradictions, is a vivid prism through which to view the twentieth century. He befriended Auden and Isherwood while at Oxford, and together the three had wildly transgressive adventures in Europe and were early vocal critics of Hitler and the rise of fascism in their celebrated writings. Like his friends, Spender was drawn to other men, yet he eventually married Natasha, a world-renowned concert pianist, and started a family.

In the midst of a heady world of poetry and liberal politics, gay love affairs and tense silences, Matthew Spender grew up the child of two brilliant artists. Taught how to use adjectives by Uncle Auden and raised among the British cultural elite, Matthew led what might have been a charmed existence were it not for the tensions in his own household. His father, always susceptible to the allure of young men, was unable to stop himself, or reveal his secret, for the sake of his family; and his mother's suffering led her to infatuations of her own. A House in St John's Woods: In Search of My Parents is a son's attempt to reconstruct a portrait of his magnetic father and unconventional family out of the ambiguous experiences of his childhood.

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Media Reviews

"Starred Review. A pointed family memoir from a writer keenly attuned to and reverent of genius." - Kirkus

"It is hard to overstate how bravely honest Matthew Spender's book is. It is the most truthful account we have had of the poet Stephen Spender...The book also matters in its own right, for its insight not just into this family but into how we are all shaped by the strangeness of the families we find ourselves inhabiting, showing the possibilities and limits of filial love and loyalty." - The Guardian

"A mesmerizing and gripping fulfillment of the universal wish of children to learn their parents' secrets, to know them as adults, A House in St. John's Wood is alive with the sensation of doors finally creaking open, of truths being told...A vivid writer as well as a sculptor, Spender uses language as a precision tool to reveal the soul of his extraordinary family." - Brad Gooch, author of Smash Cut

"Like a circus aerialist, Matthew Spender performs on a high wire strung above his incredibly talented yet tormented family, searching for the reality behind their lives, for his relationship to Natasha Litvin, his celebrated pianist-mother, and his even more celebrated writer-father...[R]ead this story that is at once biography and memoir, a tale written without a safety net, told with grace and sympathy." - Ian MacNiven, author of Literchoor is My Beat

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Author Information

Matthew Spender

Matthew Spender is a writer and sculptor. His previous books include Within Tuscany, From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky, and Goats on the Roof. He lives in Italy.

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