About Alice

By Calvin Trillin. Random House, $14.95.

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An expanded version of a New Yorker article, Calvin “Bud” Trillin’s About Alice is a gentle tribute to his wife and muse, who survived a bout with cancer in 1978 but died of heart failure in 2001. At more than one point, readers will make comparisons to Joan Didion’s amazing The Year of Magical Thinking. Alice, like John Gregory Dunne, was so integral to her spouse’s writing life that she read all of his articles and books in rough-draft form. But aside from a few similarities, the two books are wildly different. Where Didion’s chronicle stares directly into the chaos of the mourning process, Trillin’s book is more of a eulogy: He’s interested in evoking Alice’s life, not his own grief.

Inevitably, a sadness burbles beneath Trillin’s memories of his wife, who plays a starring role in a number of the author’s books (e.g., Alice, Let’s Eat). But mostly, what you take away from this well-groomed love letter is a portrait of a woman whose dogged optimism never squelched her sense of humor. Alice was a writer, an educator who dedicated herself to underprepared college students, and a deeply caring mother. The couple raised two daughters, and Trillin’s passages about his family life are moving and full of genial wisdom. Never big on compromise, Alice remains hopeful, even wisecracking, when she gets sick. In response to well-meaning friends who advise her to seek alternative treatments, she remarks that “her husband always said that his idea of alternative medicine was a doctor who didn’t go to Johns Hopkins.” Throughout, Trillin presents himself as a winning and pleasantly droll family man, but never quite as decent or sturdy as Alice. In the end, this lends his book its own charming intensity: It’s touching that he’s so grateful to have had a truly better half. — Michael Miller