As anyone who has been subjected to their uncle’s fifteenth retelling of the same childhood story can attest, family stories are sometimes only funny to those personally involved. First French Kiss and Other Traumas is a memoir of Adam Bagdasarian’s boyhood from early adolescence to the age of twenty. It chronicles the everyday episodes that we inevitably look back on with a shake of our heads and a knowing nod to their perceived momentousness. In the prologue, Bagdasarian confesses that this book was written at the urging of his mother and brother. That may help explain why minute details and trivial events are included and imbued with a meaning that falls utterly flat for the unaffiliated reader. This is a love letter to a father who has passed away and a brother who was extraordinarily, if a little unbelievably, mature and insightful.
There are writers so gifted that they are able to infuse even the most mundane of experiences with an import that is as affecting to the reader as it is to the character. The problem with French Kiss is that the characters and stories are never fully developed. The majority of the stories are missing a dramatic arc upon which the reader can be carried to a satisfying or illuminating conclusion. Each story starts with a small buildup, a little action, and a completely abrupt ending. I felt as though I kept following a path that would inevitably drop me off in the middle of nowhere and for no apparent reason. I went along for the ride, but there was no payoff except for the occasional pithy summary. More often than not the end was apparent not by a satisfactory denouement but a period at the end of the last sentence. The reader is meant to draw her/his own conclusions and lessons, I am sure, but there is not enough substance to allow the reader to do that. As with anyone’s life story, you can feel a certain kindred appreciation, but this sense of universality is stymied by the strange incidents the author uses to illustrate a lesson learned or his father’s love. The best example of this is the drawn out story of diarrhea cramps and a medicine called o.p.v. This “story” is apparently meant to illustrate his father’s love and good judgment. This episode clearly resonates with the author but frankly left me cold.
Ostensibly written from the perspective of young child and later a young man, the narrative suffers from a lack of authentic voice. Bagdasarian is unable to recreate the workings of the young mind convincingly, and it sounds like exactly what it is: a seasoned adult putting himself into the shoes of an eight-year old. When the story is told in first person present tense, the adult perceptions make the stories even less involving. I have yet to meet a twelve-year old who thinks of himself as Adam about to partake of the infamous apple.
I chose to read this book because I was interested in hearing a male perspective on childhood, so in all fairness maybe I’m not the most receptive audience for fantasies of little league championship. On the other hand, a story should be compelling on some level even if it is outside of the reader’s personal experience. Occasionally there are some funny episodes and for that, First French Kiss deserves a partial recommendation.