Book Review: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me


Things I wish my mother had told me

Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me: A Guide to Living with Impeccable Grace and Style is by Lucia van der Post, who is (was?) a columnist for the Times of London. (The book came out last year in the UK, I have the new Americanized edition.) I hadn't been a reader of Ms. van der Post's (and was dismayed to find that she thought the Marc Jacobs "Tribute" bag was "witty"), so I surprised by how much I enjoyed her book.

First off, Ms. van der Post is a woman of a certain age, and that age is old enough to have grandchildren. I have never understood why people would want to read fashion advice from someone younger than they are. (Everything looks good on people who are twenty; getting fashion advice from someone who can sleep in her makeup without consequence is like getting a restaurant recommendation from a fourteen-year-old boy.) Fashion advice should be dispensed, ideally, by elegant silver-haired matriarchs, who know all and have seen all … like Ms. van der Post. Even if you aren't trying to disguise middle-aged spread, or worrying about wrinkle creams, well, forewarned is forearmed, I say.

And although the book is jam-packed with useful information, like where to buy retro sunglasses (Cutler & Gross in the UK) and mothballs (Lakeland) and hats (nyfashionhats.com), the real value is in her insistence that fashion is about happiness ("Completely pragmatically, one observes that those who dress prettily, elegantly, or glamorously have a lot more fun than those who don't.") and that you shouldn't take yourself too seriously ("Only small people take offense," she says, quoting her father).

In addition to the usual topics of style advice books (hair, diet, clothes, accessories, manners, and men) there is an excellent section on home decor, which doesn't assume you will have hot and cold running decorators or a fifteen-room manse to decorate. (My favorite house advice was to buy slowly, one by one, things you really love, so that you don't waste money on temporary solutions … even though I am the queen of the "let's buy this $5 Ikea lamp until we figure out what we really want.")

But the worklife section is a bit … antediluvian. "Usually — but by no means always — it's in the family's interests for the man's career to be given most attention …" Really? C'mon. You get the feeling that the "by no means always" was inserted by the editor in a desperate attempt to ward off the stink of irrelevance. And Ms. van der Post's musing on whether any "… alpha woman (or any woman, come to that)" would want a "meek, docile, beta house husband"? Sheesh. If all "housewives" aren't docile (and we know they're not) why should we assume all "house husbands" are?

Actually, when reading through it, I kept having the feeling — not a bad feeling, but a strong feeling — that this could be one of those advice books from the early 1960s, like Dariaux's Elegance, reprinted. If it weren't for the URLs (and the odd mention of Uggs or Jennifer Aniston) there wouldn't be all that much to set it apart from those earlier books. And even the year's time since publication in the UK makes for some of those "window on an earlier era moments": Ms. van der Post recommends "Pepe jeans" as a good present for a "Young Boy," as well as "iPod socks."

But really, that's as it should be. Some kinds of advice are timeless (iPod socks notwithstanding), and if we have to republish it every decade or so under a different name with different quirks, I'm happy to read it every time. And really, who doesn't need to be periodically reminded of some of Ms. van der Post's maxims, like "clean and tidy less, and read more." Or "Never go out with a man who doesn't make you laugh." Or "Use the things you love every day. It's never worth saving things for a special occasion."

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0 thoughts on “Book Review: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me

  1. I’ll have to check this book out…from the library. Over to the Chicago Public Library site now. Thanks for the suggestion!

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  2. I definitely agree with using the things you love and not waiting for special occassions. I also do TRY to wait until I can afford the godo peice of furniture – but sometimes you need to put you books somewhere and have to buy the $30 bookcase at Target. (No IKEA here)

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  3. As a NYC lady (of a certain age) living and working in the UK, it might be useful to note that in the UK, the idea of alpha woman or a woman being more successful than her husband, or even the concept of house husband are all still looked at with a disapproval or even outright disgust.It was only 22 years ago that law was passed that gave women the right to NOT be raped. In fact, a woman was considered to have given consent to sex with her husband whenever and wherever he desired. When I first arrived in the UK, I took a cab from the airport to my hotel. The cab driver said….this is a really expensive place, what does your husband do for a living? When I responded that I didnt have a husband, he turned to me with a sneer and said, oh youre a career gal. I would never date a woman who made more than me. As I paid the fare I politely responded, oh I dont think that you have to worry about it.

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  4. Ouch, Ms. Manners, those dastardly Brits! But you know, there were still plenty of archaic (and mostly arcane) statutes still on the books in the US, 22 years ago. Of course, they’re all cleared up now… right?

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  5. I’m glad you brought up Genevieve Antoine Dariaux again (A Guide to Elegance: For Every Woman Who Wants to Be Well and Properly Dressed on All Occasions), because even though her book is stacked with others on my nightstand to battle insomnia, I can never remember her name or that loooong title!I thought of her a few posts ago, when you were discussing coordinated coats and dresses. Madam What’s-er-name says a rich, coordinated outfit like that is the most luxurious ensemble of all. It can also be a bit aging, though, if you use some fussy brocade or something…as hardly anyone touts this look anymore.Some of Dariaux’s advice IS a hoot, like all woman out of their teens need to sport either short hair or an updo; “In any event, never long, flowing, bedroom tresses.” While I see where she’s going with this, and I myself love a good French twist, that’s just ridiculous! As they say, “Moderation in all things, including moderation.”

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  6. “It’s never worth saving things for a special occasion.” Which is why I saw my mother in law fussing over her Lenox China and cringed, because everyone had to be so careful. My china is pretty but cheap; why cry if someone breaks a holiday dinner dish, instead of laughing and moving on?

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  7. Oh yes, another thing that gives the Madam Dariaux hives is seeing a woman wear a sweater and skirt on a city street, which is “never correct”. Addled bat!I truly fear for Marjie’s lovely hair if our favorite villainous vendeuse gets her hands on it!

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  8. Sounds like a good read, since I’ve just finished Wife Dressing. I also heed the advice not to save things for a special occasion. I use my things and enjoy them every day!

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  9. I think the work-life advice bit is so out-of-fashion as to be coming back again– Penelope Trunk, career blogger to the stars, recently had a post entitled “Your Family Would Be Better Off With a Housewife (So Would Mine.) The clamor of agreement was kind of astonishing, given the relative youth and cosmopolitan-ness of her commentariat. Anyway, yes. Grandma advice rules. It pays to pay heed, most of the time.

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  10. This book looks great, also the title says it all. the age old advice of clean as much as you have to wouldnt go down too well in our house ! That saying must be aimed at the (tidy by nature) people in the world.

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  11. Obviously her mother didn’t teach her grammer or punctuation. Erin – no comment on the lower case t in ‘things’ or Lack of capital ‘I’?Ok, I’m hopless at them too, but I’m not publishing a book!Perhaps I wouldn’t be so riled if I hadn’t read the mans career the most important section… I’m lucky, my husband is a feminist (he took my name when we married) and would love to be a house husband. Buuuuut, he earns more than me even though we do the same job! I joke that its because he is older since I hate to think its because he is a man.Seriously thinking of starting a blog ‘my daily rant’- there is so much to rant about at the moment, it may be catharitic!! 🙂

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  12. Great review! You’re right, Erin, her writing does have an olde worlde ring to it. A little context for you: Lucia v d P edited the ‘How to Spend It’ column in the salmon-pink weekend Financial Times (UK equivalent to the Wall St Journal) magazine for 26 years. So successful was it that it morphed into its very own monthly magazine supplement (I can’t recall precisely when, but some time during the last bubble-icious decade). We’re talking serious extravagance here: yachts, horlogerie etc. Let’s just say that Lucia has been a very long time macerating, cocktail-olive-like, in the early evening Martini of luxury. As a slightly accidental regular reader of ‘How to Spend It’, I have to admit to being a little more modest and high street in my purchasing habits; in fact, I can’t remember the last time I bought a yacht. But, I’m more than happy to join v d P in extolling the rather more affordable delights of Lakeland Plastics: a deeply comforting establishment, packed to the gunwales with virtuous, home-improving, pleasant and largely useful products. I’ve been enjoying their anti-moth sandalwood/lavender sachets for years (NB they’re not mothballs proper as they have no naphthalene in them – that’s not much better for the humans living near it than the target moths). Results are a bit mixed, but the clothes (and you in them) smell wonderful: I’ve even been asked what fabulous perfume I’m wearing at a party while wafting anti-moth from my best get-up! Should have answered “Papillon de Nuit” but didn’t think fast enough. Anyway, my limited experience of using Lakeland’s carpet-moth treatment suggests that it’s effective, though considerably less appealing scent-wise. Much amused by your story, Ms Manners. At least you got the British cabbie to speak to you! I’ve met with no such civility on my yellow cab excursions in NYC.

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  13. But the thing that I want to know is, when two women put in together or two men for that matter which one does she think ought to be the housewife?And whose career ought to be more significant?

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  14. getting fashion advice from someone who can sleep in her makeup without consequence is like getting a restaurant recommendation from a fourteen-year-old boyOh, Erin. This is why I love you. Yes.

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  15. I admit that I agree with Ms. vdP on not wanting a “docile” husband. Speaking as a dedicated SAHM, I’d sure like for my husband to be a bit more Alpha with his male. The sloshy, “sensitive” types just don’t cut the mustard with me.

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  16. I would love to be able to quit my job and stay home and keep it spotless. (Inever have enough time to clean). Make lovely dinners ( I always have to rush) and sew! Sew! sew!

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  17. Yep…married to a Brit. Trust me, this is not an uncommon philosophy. It was an exciting first year of marriage. :)Happily, after waiting tables for 15 long years, I am looking forward to being a stay-at-home-mom(so the fact that it fits in with his belief system is a good thang). HOWEVER, what happens when it’s time for Momma to go back to school to resume searching and seeking? Oh, boy. It’s gonna be interesting. 🙂 Love your blog.

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  18. Oooh, sounds intriguing. Though perhaps more of a library loan rather than a purchase? Really, you had me at “Lucia van der Post” Who has that name?!

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  19. I like the idea of the househusband in theory, but I am pretty sure I would resent it in practice. Already, leaving my husband home alone for the day is apt to result in piled dishes and general domestic disorder, and something tells me that he’d treat a permanent role reversal like a very long and boring vacation. LOL!

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