"I had begun to have the disquieting concept of myself as a spectator, not a participant, in my own life. I saw myself as the audience, leaning back to watch my future unfold like a Greek tragedy. I already had presentiments of the ending. That, after all, was the classic form; it was not the surprise denouement that one came to see, but the quality of the drama and performances," writes Hayward, recounting her response to the moment when she realized that her mother was in desperate trouble and on the downward slope to self-slaughter.
Margaret Sullavan: brilliant, quicksilver, vulnerable, mistrustful of fame and overly controlling of her family, the reluctant yet beloved star of "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940) and other classic movies and the creator of great Broadway diva roles such as (an omen, as it would turn out) the suicidal lead in Terence Rattigan's "The Deep Blue Sea." Hayward's father, no less charismatic, was the dynamic agent and producer Leland Hayward: dashing, funny, possessed of charm without limit and seething drive, a character who might have stepped straight from the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and one of the men who invented the Hollywood of the great studio era.
From this sparkling coupling issued three seemingly blessed children: Brooke, Bridget and Bill, who grew up having it all in the unspoiled, pre-freeway, citrus-smelling and peach-blossoming Los Angeles of the 1940s. It is a time and place that Hayward evokes here with a glowing ache.
"Every Sunday," she writes, "we would drive over to the Valley, holding our breaths and making wishes as we came to the entrance of the tunnel through the mountains; then, as Sepulveda Boulevard began its serpentine descent to the lovely clear expanse below, Father would take his foot off the gas as a gesture towards rationing and the car would careen around the curves, speeding up and slowing down under its own momentum."
The sad arc of "Haywire" describes how these beginnings, so drowned in privilege, end in divorce, breakdown and tragedy. The bewitchment of the book — and it really is magical — lies in a balancing act: This death-haunted book is at once hot and cold, detached in its control while letting pain and heartbreak bleed through the page. "I wept for my family, all of us, my beautiful, idyllic, lost family. I wept for our excesses, our delusions and inconsistencies, not that we had cared too much or too little, although both were true, but that we had let such extraordinary care be subverted into such extraordinary carelessness," she writes, describing another moment of mournful passing.
Loved ones die, but the smell of their perfume lingers in the spaces and clothes they leave behind. A pushy stepmother (Pamela, the former Mrs. Randolph Churchill and a future U.S. ambassador to France, no less) is only too eager to get her already-jeweled paws on the heirlooms. Hayward recounts this tale not just with courage and honesty but huge narrative cunning, constructing chapters that shuttle to and fro in time, leading toward and then away from the golden childhood idyll. Woven throughout are comments from friends — Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Diana Vreeland, Truman Capote — creating an effect at once close-up and kaleidoscopic, mixing the detachment of oral history with the intimate honesty of self-investigation.
Hayward's witnesses may be celebrities, but this is determinedly not a poor-little-rich-girl story. Her book concerns that which confronts us all: love's loss, the sadness of time, and the sense that, as human beings, we always seem to end up letting down those who have the most right to rely on our trust.
"How often have I had to lie or keep my mouth shut to protect the people I love most," notes the narrator of Herta Müller's novel "The Appointment" (Picador: 240 pp., $15 paper), "to keep them from plunging headlong into some disaster. Whenever I wanted my hatred to last forever, a feeling of disgust would soften it up. With a hint of love on the one hand, and a heap of self-reproach on the other, I was already surrendering to the next hatred. I've always had just enough sense to spare others, but never enough to save myself from misfortune."
Müller, a surprise winner of the Nobel Prize in 2009, left her native Romania in 1987 when the country was still controlled by the totalitarian tyrant Ceausescu. She went to Berlin, where one of the few surviving fragments of the wall that used to divide East from West features a pop-art graffito in which Ceausescu greets the Soviet leader Brezhnev with a French kiss. Muller's subversion was of a subtler, more brooding form, and the narrative of "The Appointment" features a 200-plus-page tram ride, taken by a Romanian young factory worker, summoned to an interrogation from which she fears she might not return. Her offense has been to stitch notes into the linings of men's suits exported to Italy. The notes say, "Marry me," and she was prepared to take the first comer, so long as he would get her out of Romania.
Now she's in the soup. Her dreams of escape and the means by which an upside-down world of political tyranny crushes the life out of personal relationships are revealed in a series of flashbacks, recollections and side stories.
"The Appointment" has shades of Kafka, and it isn't without bleak humor. Müller makes us feel the paranoia of a doomed regime, even as her beset narrator slips into a swirl of foggy rage.
All the more haunting to read this novel now that Ceausescu is long gone, for what Müller has to say about the emotional consequences of tyranny has a universal and present application. Times change and tyrants do fall while the flawed quest for human connection goes on — a quest that is observed with dark sharpness here. This new edition contains the transcript of Müller's Nobel acceptance speech.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place." Paperback Writers appears monthly at http://www.latimes.com/books.