Criticism & Features

Year 2014: 30 Books

Alex Abramovich on Blake Bailey’s ‘The Splendid Things We Planned’

By Alex Abramovich

In the days leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2014 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Abramovich offers an appreciation of autobiography finalist Blake Bailey's “The Splendid Things We Planned” (W.W. Norton).

Blake Bailey is best-known as one of our very best writers on writers: Richard Yates; Charles Jackson; John Cheever. (In 2009, Bailey's life of Cheever won the National Book Critics Circle Award.) “The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait” is a memoir—it might be shorter and more impressionistic than Bailey's biographies—but it shares their best qualities; is wrenching and honest and unsentimental; and explains the dark undertows that have informed Bailey's own life as a writer.

In the New York Times, Cheever's daughter-in-law, Janet Maslin, said, “The takeaway from this vivid, tender book is that it can be as valuable for a reader to know a biographer as it is for a biographer to know his or her subject.”

Writing in the Boston Globe, NBCC board member Kate Tuttle called the book “as clear-eyed and heart-breaking as any of [Bailey's] acclaimed biographies, [and] every bit as compelling.”

Both of these descriptions are fair and accurate: Bailey, currently at work on a life of Philip Roth, has the novelist's eye for detail, and a natural gift for narrative, and his “Splendid Things” is splendid.  


Kate Tuttle review in the Boston Globe.

Janet Maslin review in The New York Times.

Blake Bailey's website