Blake Bailey has written notable biographies of authors John Cheever and Richard Yates, both difficult and brilliant men. While he was sifting through their lives, he was also reflecting on his own. The Splendid Things We Planned is the resulting portrait, a story of mental illness and addiction and the difficult orbits they force upon the healthy. It’s also a tribute to one family’s best efforts and inevitable failings.

Bailey’s older brother, Scott, was born while his parents were still in college. Re-established in Vinita, Oklahoma, their father parlayed his law school education into ever-increasing job responsibility while their mother followed her intellectual bliss and turned their home into a mini-salon for foreign exchange students and witty gay men. Young Blake took in scenes of infidelity and drug use, but his attention was generally on Scott, a handsome bully whose seemingly limitless potential gradually collapsed under relentless drug use and delusional thinking.

Bailey tells a difficult story with spare language that allows for some dry humor. His father remarries a woman who despises both sons equally, so he largely checks out where they’re concerned for several years. His mother dotes on her oldest boy, ever faithful that he’d turn back into the son she knew. “She missed Scott and wanted to talk about him, simple as that—to speculate about his motives, to retrace our steps to the exact point in time when everything went blooey.” Anyone who has lived with someone similarly ill will find this book painfully accurate when it comes to the mental gymnastics and survivor’s guilt involved.

The family as a whole is an eccentric bunch, and Marlies, Scott’s mother, keeps her dignity and a sense of humor while buying a pistol to defend herself against her son. If The Splendid Things We Planned is a damning portrait of mental illness, it’s also an unforgettable look at a family doing its best in the most trying of circumstances, those where no good outcome exists.

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