Duchess Goldblatt is a fictitious character, invented for social media. She lives on Twitter, where her kind old eyes (her avatar is a 17th-century Dutch painting called “Portrait of an Elderly Lady”) twinkle out at her followers as she dispenses cracked wisdom. (“New Year’s Eve, steam the new year in a pot of water with a bay leaf. Any months that don’t open on their own are no good. Throw them out.”)
The Duchess’ creator is anonymous, and that is the biggest problem with the new memoir, “Becoming Duchess Goldblatt.” We don’t know who the narrator is, which makes it impossible to understand her transformation — or, frankly, to much care.
Here’s what we do know: Anonymous is a youngish woman, divorced, with a son. Her upbringing was difficult — her brother was mentally ill, her mother a cold fish, her beloved father dead. Her divorce was devastating, and afterward all of Anonymous’ friends abandoned her, though it’s not clear why. “It seemed, for a number of years there, that in every direction I turned, doors closed in my face,” she writes. “People didn’t want me around.”
Anonymous invented the Duchess out of a desire to be part of social media without revealing anything of herself. On Twitter, she found a voice, an audience and a tribe; as Duchess Goldblatt, she now has more than 30,000 followers. But only a few people know who she really is.
“Becoming Duchess Goldblatt” is one of the summer’s buzzy books — it garnered a starred review in the trade journal Kirkus and was named one of the New York Times’ 20 books to read in 2020 — but, frankly, I’m not feeling it.
The bar is and needs to be high for anonymous memoirs — with no names or identifying characteristics, where’s the accountability? Is all of this true? Is any of it true?
Anonymity in memoirs is usually to protect the writer in the case of fraught books — “Incest Diary,” for instance, or “In His Sights,” a woman’s memoir of being stalked.
The reason for anonymity here seems entirely frivolous — merely to keep the mystery going.
The first half of “Goldblatt” is full of sadness bordering on self-pity, every slight a hurt. The second half is an almost giddy recounting of how Anonymous became friends (first as the virtual Duchess, later as the actual Anonymous) with singer Lyle Lovett, writers Elizabeth McCracken, Elmore Leonard, and others.
“I love you,” Anonymous gushed to Lovett the first time she met him, backstage at a concert. “I’m a real fan. I’ve loved you for years and years.” At times, her thrill at being accepted by the Famous made me wince.
The Duchess has plenty of non-famous followers, as well, and she writes to them, responds to them, offers advice. They love and trust her; they mail her pies and coffee mugs.
For all its flaws, the Goldblatt memoir does carry a hopeful message, one we certainly need now: People can be kind, the world can be a giving place, unhappiness can change into happiness, and there are many different ways to find community.
Or as the Duchess has said, “Good morning, sentient chunks of goodness. We meet again for another spin on the old axis. Let’s see what we can do with this one.”
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. • 612-673-7302 • @StribBooks
Becoming Duchess Goldblatt
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 240 pages, $24.
Coming Sunday: A review of “Crooked Hallelujah,” by Kelli Jo Ford.