Anne Fadiman has been telling stories, her own and those of others, for several decades. She has written about the ordeal of a Hmong family grappling with American healthcare; about her love of books and reading; about butterflies, ice cream and coffee. In her absorbing new memoir, “The Wine Lover’s Daughter,” the award-winning author and essayist takes on perhaps her most personal and challenging subject to date – namely, her late father and their relationship.

Clifton Fadiman was an esteemed wordsmith in multiple media. Author, anthologist and emcee, he was also editor-in-chief at Simon and Schuster, book critic for the New Yorker and host of the popular radio quiz show “Information Please” from the 1930s. Ever the refined overachiever, Fadiman was renowned for his urbane intellect and wit, and for his commanding voice.

For all his accomplishments, however, the elder Fadiman lived with a crushing sense of fraudulence. He could never quite transcend his origins as a short, homely kid from the tenements of pregentrified Brooklyn. The son of immigrants who spoke fractured English, he was an outsider in the new world. Fadiman was also a Jew, which he likened to a disability.

“He wanted to be as far as possible from his own origins,” the author writes. “After all, he had put a great deal of skill and effort into fabricating himself …. In his seventies, he recalled that as a young man he had looked around him and realized that things were run by people who spoke well and who were not Jewish, not poor, and not ugly. He couldn’t become a gentile, but there was nothing to stop him from acquiring money and perfect English.”

If Clifton Fadiman reinvented himself, he had considerable help from an unlikely source. As a young man visiting Paris, he didn’t just discover wine; he fell head over heels for it. Over the years, he began collecting wine, studying and writing about it; developing a wine cellar and cultivating ties with leading wine authorities. In short, he was enthralled by everything about wine – its complexity and sensory pleasures, its chemistry and civilizing effects. And, as the author notes, there was a bonus: “Wine wasn’t Jewish.”

In the Fadiman household, wine was also a bond between father and daughter. “It was a foregone conclusion that I would love wine someday. I wouldn’t be my father’s daughter if I didn’t,” the author says.


But that proved to be elusive. Although she could appreciate the delicate notes and smooth finish that so captivated her dad, she never really enjoyed wine; she found it too astringent. Unnerved by this “failure” on her part, even as an adult, she underwent a battery of scientific taste tests that examined the papillae on her tongue, oral receptors, flavor preferences – all in hopes of exoneration. The tests proved that her lackings were actually an excess of certain taste buds – not, as she feared, a character flaw.

“So there it was. I didn’t taste what my father tasted,” Fadiman says. “I was in my late forties when I finally admitted to myself that I would never love wine.”

More pointedly, she once asked her brother why he thought they didn’t share their father’s passion for wine. “Because,” he replied, “we didn’t need to escape our origins.”

Clifton Fadiman died in 1999, leaving nearly two decades for the author, a daddy’s girl, to mull over her father’s legacy. Alternating between the lives of the two principals, Fadiman explores her father’s divergent selves – the diminished child, aspiring WASP and famed literary maven – with grace and humor. She reflects on her own role as an “oakling,” long eclipsed by her father’s shadow, and their naturally shifting balance over time.

“The Wine Lover’s Daughter” pays tribute to a man who enlivened language and literature for the better part of a century, until his death at the age of 95. It is also much more – a study of class and family; of anti-Semitism and immigrants as outsiders; and of the pursuit of excellence. Above all, it’s a story of wine as conduit and holy grail, as the centerpiece of a life. Clifton Fadiman loved books and wine beyond all else. His daughter’s memoir decants a narrative that’s spirited, full-bodied and complex.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

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