Girls of Tender Age

A Memoir

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About The Book

In Girls of Tender Age, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith fully articulates with great humor and tenderness the wild jubilance of an extended French-Italian family struggling to survive in a post-World War II housing project in Hartford, Connecticut. Smith seamlessly combines a memoir whose intimacy matches that of Angela's Ashes with the tale of a community plagued by a malevolent predator that holds the emotional and cultural resonance of The Lovely Bones.

Smith's Hartford neighborhood is small-town America, where everyone’s door is unlocked and the school, church, library, drugstore, 5 & 10, grocery, and tavern are all within walking distance. Her family is peopled with memorable characters—her possibly psychic mother who's always on the verge of a nervous breakdown, her adoring father who makes sure she has something to eat in the morning beyond her usual gulp of Hershey’s syrup, her grandfather who teaches her to bash in the heads of the eels they catch on Long Island Sound, Uncle Guido who makes the annual bagna cauda, and the numerous aunts and cousins who parade through her life with love and food and endless stories of the old days. And then there’s her brother, Tyler.

Smith's household was “different.” Little Mary-Ann couldn't have friends over because her older brother, Tyler, an autistic before anyone knew what that meant, was unable to bear noise of any kind. To him, the sound of crying, laughing, phones ringing, or toilets flushing was “a cloud of barbed needles” flying into his face. Subject to such an assault, he would substitute that pain with another: he'd try to chew his arm off. Tyler was Mary-Ann's real-life Boo Radley, albeit one whose bookshelves sagged under the weight of the World War II books he collected and read obsessively.

Hanging over this rough-and-tumble American childhood is the sinister shadow of an approaching serial killer. The menacing Bob Malm lurks throughout this joyous and chaotic family portrait, and the havoc he unleashes when the paths of innocence and evil cross one early December evening in 1953 forever alters the landscape of Smith's childhood.

Girls of Tender Age is one of those books that will forever change its readers because of its beauty and power and remarkable wit.

Reading Group Guide

Girls of Tender Age Reading Group Guide
Written with great humor and tenderness, Girls of Tender Age combines an intimate family memoir with the tale of a community plagued by a horrifying crime. Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's Hartford neighborhood is small-town America, where everyone's door is unlocked and everything is within walking distance. Her loving family is peopled with memorable characters, but Smith's household was also "different" because her older brother, Tyler, was autistic before anyone knew what that meant. Unable to bear noise of any kind, Tyler was Mary-Ann's real-life Boo Radley.
Hanging over Smith's family is the sinister shadow of an approaching serial killer. The menacing Bob Malm lurks throughout this joyous and chaotic family portrait, and the havoc he unleashes when the paths of innocence and evil cross one early December evening in 1953 forever alters the landscape of Smith's childhood.
Reading group discussion questions
1. Mary-Ann's father's role as primary caretaker is established early in her life. On page 10 she tells the story of waking up too late to see her father before he goes to work. She cries, knowing that missing him "means a day without any attention whatsoever." What is her mother's reaction to Mary-Ann's tears? How do the parents' actions throughout the book reinforce your early impressions of them? Does either of them ever change? Does the way that Mary-Ann relates to them ever change?
2. The young Mary-Ann is "always looking for ways to be transported out of the bedlam that is my home" (55), yet as an adult she is saddened when the crying of her new baby means she must be "banished" from her parents' house. Discuss her conflicting needs to be both close and distant from her family at various points in her life.
3. Consider Mary-Ann's experiences with death prior to Irene's murder. What does she learn from each? What is the cumulative effect of the experiences -- do they prepare her in any way to cope with the murder? How do they leave her unprepared?
4. Mary-Ann says that as a child, her "fear is related to the irrational -- terror of the guillotine lopping off my feet, for example." (page 140) What are some of her other irrational childhood fears and what causes them? Do you see a pattern in the causes?
5. Language -- written and spoken -- plays an important part in the book. The lack of it harms Mary-Ann: "to this day, I sometimes mispronounce words because of the dearth of speech in my house." (page 58) But the written word provides her with escape, and the book itself brings her closure. What are some other examples of the significance of language in her life? What are some instances when words left unsaid are as powerful as those that are spoken?
6. Though Girls of Tender Age primarily focuses on the personal lives of the author and her family, it also reveals a great deal about small town communities and American culture in the 1950s. What is the town of Hartford like? What makes it distinctive from, or representative of, the rest of America? Discuss references the author makes to common 1950s attitudes or beliefs.
7. When Mary-Ann's professor tells her that her brother is not retarded, but autistic -- an "idiot savant", she is surprised. Why do you think an alternate description of her brother never occurred to her? The professor describes life with Tyler as a "rigid, narrow grid" (page 158). Do you agree with this description? How does the nature of the "grid" change when Mary-Ann's mother goes back to work? When Tyler grows older?
8. In many ways, police procedures are more advanced today then they were in the 1950s...and in may ways they are not. How might Robert Malm's crimes have been handled differently today? Consider the police's actions after Malm's assault of Pidgie D'Allessio, the investigation of the crime scene after Irene's murder, and Pidgie's identification of Malm. How might the questioning of Fred Fiederowicz be handled differently today, or would it? Might the ploy to insinuate to Malm that he was the victim still be a police ploy? Do the police use trickery or lies to elicit a confession?
9. Robert Malm blames "the monster" inside of him for killing Irene, and the author writes that Tyler also had a monster: autism. Do you agree with the comparison? Do you think that Malm was rightly held accountable for his actions, or were they beyond his control, as Tyler's were? Does the author's choice to link her brother and the murderer who killed her friend surprise you? Why or why not?
10. Consider the notion of catharsis and what the author accomplishes by writing about Irene's death. Do you think she has, as she hoped, created a memorial for Irene? What has she achieved for herself by "filling in her gap"? What evidence can you find that writing is cathartic for her?
11. The author chose to include the definition of "tender" as the epigraph to her book. Discuss the significance of the title "Girls of Tender Age." Why do you think the author chose this title? How do you interpret it? Do you think that everyone is "of tender age" at some point?
12. Do you think autism is an epidemic today?
Enhance your reading group experience
1. Food connects and comforts the author and her family. Make the recipe for Pineapple Cream Pie included at the end of the book, eat slices of French bread spread with butter and topped with sliced radishes, or look up a recipe for bagna cauda on www.italianmade.com and serve it during your book group's meeting.
2. Create a mix CD of music mentioned in the book, such as "Love Me Tender," "I'll Never Smile Again," "My Blue Heaven," "The Sidewalks of New York," or other music from the era. You could also include Tyler's favorite -- polka.
3. If you enjoyed Girls of Tender Age, consider reading another one of the author's books. Discuss notable features of her writing style and whether the books contain any similarities. Alternatively, choose another memoir about family and childhood with similar themes such as The Glass Castle, Angela's Ashes, The Liars Club, or Change Me Into Zeus's Daughter. Compare and contrast the voice, plot, and family dynamic.
4. Girls of Tender Age is filled with the author's family photos, but she notes that during the time her memories were repressed, her mother stopped taking photos. Have everyone in the group bring in a picture from their childhood that summons up a significant or poignant memory. Share your photos and stories and discuss the evocative power of photos and what they can and cannot preserve.

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Mary-Ann Tirone Smith is the author of eight novels. She has lived all her life in Connecticut, except for two years when she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (January 9, 2007)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743279789

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Raves and Reviews

"Like David Lynch's Blue Velvet, Girls of Tender Age peers into the dark spaces between the streetlights in a quiet residential neighborhood. Something sinister lurks just off the page, and it creeps closer and closer until the memoir's two story lines twist together. . . . Smith's deadpan delivery and comedic timing give the narrative spark." -- The New York Times Book Review

"A riveting memoir that encompasses the murder of a schoolmate by a pedophile and life with a brother who suffered from autism." -- People

"This beautiful memoir succeeds not only in recovering the author's past, but also in uncovering and ordering the few sordid facts of the crime and creating a narrative where one was not allowed to exist. . . . Riveting and suspenseful." -- The Boston Globe

"With intelligence, disarming humor, and deep affection for the families and the neighborhoods of the 1950s, Girls of Tender Age speaks eloquently on behalf of children and confronts the crippling silences that damage us in any era." -- The Washington Post

"Smith handles this mix of crime and memoir with the same smooth blend of journalistic precision and compelling story-telling that Joan Didion demonstrated recently in The Year of Magical Thinking." -- San Francisco Chronicle

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