Review: The Red Leather Diary

the red leather diary

Name of Book: The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal
By: Lily Koppel
Publisher: Harper
Copyright Date: 2008
Number of Pages: 336
Format: nonfiction
Reason for Reading: book club selection for May
Rating: B-

“The trunk was one of a roomful carted to a waiting Dumpster, and as is often the case in New York, trash and treasure were bedfellows. Some passersby jimmied open the locks and pried apart the trunks’ sides in search of old money. Others stared transfixed, as if gazing into a shipwreck, at the treasures spilling from the warped cedar drawers: a flowered kimono, a beaded flapper dress, a cloth-bound volume of Tennyson’s poems, half of a baby’s red sweater still hanging from its knitting needles. A single lime silk glove fluttered like a small flag. But the diary seems a particularly eloquent survivor of another age. It was as if a corsage once pinned to a girl’s dress were preserved for three quarters of a century, faded ribbons intact, the scent still lingering from its petals.  Through a serendipitous chain of events, the diary was given the chance to tell its story.”

Lily Koppel is a journalist for the New York Times. She was new to the city in 2003, just starting out at the Times when she moved into 98 Riverside Drive, where her journey with Florence and the diary began. One day she noticed that there was a dumpster full of steamer trunks. Curious, she climbed into it and sifted through the contents to claim some treasure as her own. She kept a designer jacket and an old flapper dress.  She was given the diary by someone else who’d found it in the dumpster. Upon reading it, she felt very connected to Florence, eventually hiring an investigator to find her.

I am fascinated by other people’s lives. I love watching movies based on true stories. I love reading biographies and memoirs. I especially have a soft spot for diaries, whether they are a real person’s diaries that have been published or even a fiction story written in the format of a diary. It is a privilege to be let into someone’s innermost thoughts and inner life, not to mention the details of their external one. I was very excited to read this book.

Florence Wolfson was born in 1915 and came of age during the Great Depression. She lived in Manhattan on the fringe of high society. Her parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe and had built their lives from the ground up. Her father was a physician and her mother owned a couture dress shop.

At times, I almost forgot that I was reading about a real person. Florence lived a privileged and glamorous life. She was super smart with an IQ of 150 at age ten. She started high school at age eleven and started college at sixteen. She was very passionate and creative, interested in writing and drawing. She also loved nature and horseback riding.  She is very open in her diary about her sexual explorations with women and men, her frustrations about life, her intense desire to be more, to do more. She was very independent and forward thinking, ahead of her time. When she graduated college, she wanted to see the world, discover who she was to become. She wasn’t interested in making a good marriage match, which was her mother’s main focus for her after she finished her education.

The life Florence lived growing up is so different in ways from the life I know, but her inner turmoil and teenage angst were completely relatable. I also found it oddly comforting, that after she finished college, despite all of her talents, she struggled with the question of what to do with her life.

The writing style was a little too journalistic for my taste. Obviously, the author is a journalist, not a novel writer, but I found the writing style to be disjointed and distracting. The best writing takes place in the first chapter, when the author is setting up the story. Once chapter two starts and we are in the diary itself, the writing was less cohesive. I appreciated that she tried to incorporate Florence’s actual entries, but given how the diary only allowed a few lines per day, the entries interrupted the flow. It would have flowed better to have several lines of entries at the beginning of each chapter. However, I did enjoy reading Florence’s pithy entries.

“Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven-I feel like a ripe apricot-I’m dizzy with the exotic.

Bought Chopin’s preludes and tried some of the simplest. Like a tremor of clean air and the silver sheen of fresh water. I love them.

Dear God, I’m sick of this mess! What am I-man or woman? Both? is it possible-it’s all become so hard, so loathsome-the forced decision-the pain.

Time merges with eternity and I am left behind-Perhaps this is the planting time-does harvest always come?”

The book is peppered with personal photographs, which I absolutely loved. It really helped bring the story to life and vividly brought me into the setting of the thirties. I read this on my Kindle and the quality of the pictures was pretty good. The only one that wasn’t great was the yearbook page, I couldn’t read the names under the photographs.

The discussion: Almost everyone was a little underwhelmed by the writing, but we all loved the story. Only one member didn’t love it as she couldn’t stand Florence due to her sexual experimentation and liberal ways. Her own grandmother grew up during this time and she expressed that she couldn’t imagine her grandmother doing anything Florence did, which made Florence unrelatable to her. I found that interesting because we can’t (or don’t want to) imagine our grandparents or even our parents having lived lives outside of what we know, outside of the roles they play in our lives.

We discussed quite a bit, Florence’s sexual exploration and her liaisons with women and men. We talked about how you don’t think certain things happened during certain time periods, how we idealize certain time periods, and how what we read in Florence’s journal rubbed up against our preconceived notions of life in the thirties. Our society now may be more open (which we also discussed the merits and drawbacks of) but I for one, think that Florence’s story just shows that people don’t really change all that much as the years pass. The difference is what society deems acceptable to talk about and what needs to be shoved under the rug. Throughout time, teenagers have experimented with sex, otherwise we wouldn’t have the stories of women being sent away to have babies in secret and give them up for adoption. One woman in the bookclub has a relative, (I don’t recall if it is her grandmother) who experienced just that. It is still a big family secret and her own children don’t even know they have another sibling out there. Another woman shared how the book reminded her of finding her own grandmother’s steamer trunk after she died, discovering all of her treasures-first edition books, clothes, shoes, which endeared the story to her.

All in all, the writing is a little underwhelming, but the story more than makes up for it.

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This entry was posted in Nonfiction, Posts by Jehara and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Review: The Red Leather Diary

  1. I enjoyed this one when I read it. Nice review.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I found Florence fascinating because she grew up so differently than my parents did.

  3. izzybella says:

    I found your story about the book-clubber who couldn’t see her grandmother doing any of that interesting. CG’s and my grandmother (dad’s side) turned out to have quite a lot of secrets-one of which we discovered LITERALLY at her funeral. She’d been married already once before and my grandfather was her second husband. My dad and uncle had no idea. It’s a selfish thing, kind of, not being able to image any parent or grandparent having a life before you, but it’s understandable selfishness-how you build up your belief system and attitudes. This was a great review and a great way of relating the book content to the world around us.

    • jehara says:

      I thought that was interesting too. I, myself, have no problem imagining this about my own parents or grandparents. The book club was great and the book gave great discussion. 🙂

  4. Staci says:

    I have this one somewhere, or maybe I gave it away. I thought it sounded interesting at one time but it doesn’t really capture my interest.

  5. Margot says:

    I put this book on my To-Read List a couple of years ago after reading so many good reviews. Then I never got around to it.. Your review was a good reminder of why I want to read it – still. I like Izzybella’s comment about “understandable selfishness.” How true she is. As children we are very self-centered and selfish and it’s necessary in our growing-up years. But it certainly does taint our view of history – personal and otherwise.

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