book review

“Note Found in a Bottle” by Susan Cheever

Cheever, Susan. Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker 
Simon & Schuster, 1999
Hardcover, 192 pages
ISBN 0-684-80432-8


My grandmother Cheever taught me how to embroider, how to say the Lord’s Prayer, and how to make a perfect dry martini. She showed me how to tilt the gin bottle into the tumbler with the ice, strain the iced liquid into the long-stemmed martini glass, and add the vermouth. “Just pass the bottle over the gin,” she explained in the genteel Yankee voice that had made her gift shop such a success that she was able to support her sons and husband. I watched enthralled as she twisted the lemon peel with her tiny white hands and its oil spread across the shimmery surface. I was six.

(p. 15)

Thus Susan Cheever begins her story of growing up to become an alcoholic. Daughter of fiction writer John Cheever, she grew up in the post-war prosperity of the 1950s, in a world in which little girls assumed they’d become housewives and meet their hard-working husbands at the door every evening with a welcome-home cocktail in hand. But alcohol was even more pervasive than the evening cocktail hour in the Cheever household. At a young age, Susan says, “I was already well acquainted with the miraculous medicinal powers of alcohol. My mother dispensed two fingers of whiskey for stomach pain and beer for other digestive problems. Gin was an all-purpose anesthetic” (p. 17). Young Susan learned that whiskey and gin helped ease the painful constriction in her chest during bouts of severe childhood asthma.

Alcohol continued to inform—and undermine—her life. She writes that, while she was in college, “It never would have occurred to me or anyone around me that there was any connection, any connection at all, between the problems I had—at school, with men—and the way I drank” (p. 33). Her sodden lifestyle carried her through three failed marriages.

It wasn’t until age 50 that she realized how alcohol had directed her life. To take control of herself and her life, which now included two young children, she realized she would have to stop drinking, and to stop drinking she would have to change her lifestyle and surround herself with people whose lives didn’t revolve around alcohol consumption.

It would be easy for Susan Cheever to bemoan her fate as a child living in an era that glorified drinking, raised by alcoholic parents, doomed to become an alcoholic herself. But Cheever never takes the easy way out. While describing the mistakes she made in her life, she never shifts the responsibility for her actions to anyone other than herself. Her story is a straightforward tale told without lamentation or self-pity. A tone of quiet self-knowledge underlies Note Found in a Bottle and underscores the book’s powerful message.

© 1999 by Mary Daniels Brown

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