If there is one thing that David Roberts’s new biography of the novelist and short-story writer Jean Stafford makes abundantly clear, it is that any essay about her should probably begin with her parents, her family, and her strangely tormenting childhood.[1] She was born in Covina, California, in 1915, the youngest of four children. Her father, John Stafford, was himself a writer of sorts—a genuine obsessive whose career peaked early with the publication of an obscure hack Western novel, When Cattle Kingdom Fell. From there it was straight downhill: selling his Covina walnut ranch in 1921, he promptly lost the proceeds in the stock market and moved his family to Colorado, where he spent the last forty years of his life writing and rewriting a bizarre magnum opus designed, in Roberts’s words, to “set the world straight” on the perils of the...