What Remains

This memoir by Karen von Hahn is about her stylish and captivating mother, Susan.

Karen von Hahn

(House of Anansi Press)

Being left with a strand of even the highest quality milky-white pearls isn't quite the same thing as pearls of wisdom to live by, as Karen von Hahn reveals in her memoir about her stylish and captivating mother, Susan — a mercurial, grandiose, Guerlain-and-vodka-soaked narcissist whose search for glamour and fulfillment through the acquisition and collection of beautiful things ultimately proved hollow.

A tale of growing up in 1970s and 1980s Toronto in the fabulousness of a bourgeois Jew-ish family that valued panache over pragmatism and making a design statement over substance, von Hahn's recollections of her dramatic and domineering mother are exemplified by the objects she held most dear: from a strand of prized pearls, to a Venetian mirror worthy of the palace of Versailles, to the silver satin sofas that were the epitome of her signature style. She also describes the misunderstandings and sometimes hurt and pain that come with being raised by her stunning, larger-than-life mother who in many ways embodied the flash-and-glam, high-flying, wealth-accumulating generation that gave birth to our modern-day material culture.

Alternating between satire and sadness, von Hahn reconstructs the past through a series of exquisitely impressionistic memories, ultimately questioning the value of the things we hold dear and — after her complicated, yet impossible-to-forget mother is gone — what exactly remains. (From House of Anansi)

Read an excerpt | Author interviews

From the book

The story of how my mother, who emerged Venus-like to the amazement and admiration of her small-town Ontario family in 1939, managed to land such a prize set was one of the pearls she might pull out at parties. With a glass of red in one hand and a Craven "A" dripping its ash in the other, she would grab at the creamy strand dangling just beneath the deep V of her silk blouse, arch her dark brows dramatically, lower her lids till her eyes were half-closed like a psychic in a trance leading a séance and offer, as if she were sharing a closely guarded secret amongst the world's top gemologists: "You know, pearls as good as these no longer even exist."

From What Remains by Karen von Hahn ©2017. Published by House of Anansi.

Author interviews

Karen von Hahn on her memoir of her beloved mother "What Remains: Object Lessons in Love and Loss.” 17:15