Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

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Mary’s mother is well practiced at laughing off moments like these, behaving as if nothing is strange. To do anything else would be the same as admitting that she lacks any real control over the situation- that she cannot understand what is happening in her house, much less how to stop it.

Hidden Valley Road is the story of a family, created by Don and Mimi Galvin (ten boys and two girls) picked apart by the ravages of schizophrenia, a disease that takes the foundation of the family and ‘permanently tilted it in the direction of the sick family member’.  What happens when it appears in several family members? When, like the fear of it’s contagion, the parents aim a laser focus on each child afraid they may be next? How does this attention harm every sibling? How can the parents possibly dodge the terror of, ‘who will be next’ ? Is it any surprise that fear of odd behavior in their own children will follow the siblings later in life?

In the beginning, Mimi and Don envisioned a life full of ‘limitless hope and confidence’. Don was ambitious, and war bound after joining the Marine Corp Reserves, before heading out near Okinawa where he was to be stationed during the war in 1945, he married Mimi. While he was away, Mimi gave birth to their firstborn son. Soon followed more children, born while her husband  came and went for his career, at times he was home from Georgetown (finishing his degree) and Rhode Island to the Navy’s General Line School. Focused always on his career, which came first, Mimi was left either trailing after him with the children or awaiting his return alone with their offspring. She with dreams of a lawyer husband and a life where she could raise their brood alongside their family in New York, bided time until the war was over. Don was using the military as a means to his end, a career in law or better yet, political science. The end of his service came but he reneged on their plan and instead joined the Air Force, which lead them surprisingly to Colorado Springs.

Despite Mimi’s disappointment and after many shed tears, she began to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings. Together, she and Don discovered a passion for falconry, one which they shared with their boys, coming of age in the 1950’s. (I found this fascinating). Mimi rushed headfirst into raising her children all on her own without the help of nannies, family anyone. She would raise her boys to be cultured through art, music, nature and as more children came (if Don had his way Mimi would be pregnant forever) she worked even harder at being the best mother anyone could be; their clan would be the ‘model’ American family. Her passion for motherhood knew no bounds! It fed her ego, there was a special pride in ‘being known as a mother would could easily accomplish such a thing’, raising such a brood with unwavering determination and love. Why such a large family, well if it made Don happy, it was her joy to provide more offspring. Personally, as a mother with two children I found her enthusiasm and energy incredible, I get tired just thinking about it.

The dynamic in the couples marriage changed, Don’s career in intelligence yet another thing to keep Mimi at a distance, while she remained the rock for the children through the years, the one left to supervise, a ‘happy warrior’. But her dream of perfect children, everyone in line, the ‘model American family’ was about to shatter. Battling the common childhood illnesses like chicken pox, everyone knowing their chores, cooking, cleaning, for a large family is a mean feat but battling a little understood mental illness in a time where there wasn’t much compassion to be found in anyone straying from the social norms was a terrible mark against you. When the cracks first appeared in the eldest, most adored son (the namesake Don Jr.) who often watched his siblings, bullying them, setting them up against each other, it was largely ignored. The busy family didn’t have time for squabbles, the father’s favorite was believed. Even when he would smash dishes, and act out with violence, Don and Mimi behaved as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening, confusing and horrifying the other children. Something was wrong, no one knew it more than Donald himself. He would take the mental disturbances with him away to college, where it would soon show itself.

With the two older boys eventually out of the house, and Don Sr’s professional prospects, order had to be maintained, there could be no admittance of anything being off kilter. Such a thing is a stain that could ruin Don’s career and the Galvin’s social standing. Maybe the boys wreaked havoc, ending in bruises when they were home visiting, but ‘boys will be boys’ and need to become men and stand on their own. Then Don Jr fell apart, again and again, and it was no longer easy to deny something was wrong, not when it could no longer be hidden from the public too. He would never climb out of his illness, despite medicine, science, doctors best efforts. Worse, the abuse their daughters suffered in silences, denial. The embarrassment of their brother’s illness a thing they felt ashamed about and resentful of.

I can’t do justice in a review, it’s hard to summarize what the entire Galvin family went through, the hope, the fear, the denial and sexual abuse. I think about those decades, where mothers were often blamed for any sign of mental decline, where shame was all that mental illness bought you. When turning to doctors often did more harm than good, even now medication that is meant to help navigate mental illnesses do the body, all it’s organs so much harm, but there aren’t many alternatives beyond avoiding medication altogether and that leaves you exactly in the same abyss you started from. It victimizes the person coping with the illness, but you can’t ignore the voices of the family members that are forced to cope with the illness too. Children that are neglected because the illness consumes so much energy within the family, the physicality of it. Science isn’t moving fast enough, despite leaps like studying the Galvins and why schizophrenia claimed some of the children and not others. It feels too late for the Galvins in many ways. As much as we make judgments about Mimi and Don’s attempt to pretend everything is normal, how can we not empathize, imagining being in their place. Parenting is difficult enough, much of what we deny is fear motivated, comes form a place of love, and sure sometimes our own egos.

I’m always drawn to stories and studies about mental illness. I have a schizophrenic uncle, my own son is on the autism spectrum (he isn’t the only one in our extended family)… but for my uncle, I have seen how people fear mental illness, the hopelessness of my grandmother (when she was still alive) and yet immense love and support for her son who would not take his medication, and lives the life of a loner, often taken advantage of and there is nothing anyone can do. There is so much we do not know, and it’s hard for many to trust doctors when some of their treatments have done more harm than good. It can feel overwhelming and hopeless, your choices limited. Of course we aim to fix things, who wants to watch their family member suffer. It is reality still that with diseases people often find public support, compassion yet where there is mental illness most reactions are fear based and the public often judges those coping with it a ‘lost cause’. It’s the terrible result of little education. Doctors can only treat as well as the scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, but behind the illness are very real human beings.

This book is heartbreaking, and I have great admiration for all the Galvin children  (those still alive are full grown adults now, of course). This is really their story. They own it, they live in the aftermath and each makes choices based on their own emotional compass. Their story broke my heart and it will stay with me. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Doubleday Books

 

 

Shuggie Bain: A Novel by Douglas Stuart

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He felt something was wrong. Something inside him felt put together incorrectly. It was like they could all see it, but he was the only one who could not say what it was. It was just different, and so it was just wrong. 

Drinking and Drugs as escape during a time when people are out of work and downtrodden happens in any country. In this moving novel, Shuggie Bain comes of age during the 1980’s in Glasgow, Scotland. “Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work”, which is bad enough but with a taxi driver father loose with infidelities and a mother sick of living a crammed existence at her parents, who gets angry ‘with littered promises of better things’ , the future doesn’t look good for their children (Catherine, Leek and Shuggie). Agnes Bain enjoys the taste of drink as much as she loves attention from men, envy from women. She wants a better life, even if it means beautifying herself while women in the same circumstances as her laugh at her, or feel insanely terrified she’ll steal their men. She had fun once, before life meant struggle, poverty. The past was full of carefree dancing but those times are over.

Born with bad teeth, she was so sure dentures would glam her smile like the movie stars in Hollywood. She is beautiful but doomed by her drinking, and her constant hunger for more.  Shug senior is nothing but a selfish animal, but something about him made her hunger for him so much she left her first marriage for him, despite him being a Protestant and she, a Catholic. A steady husband didn’t give her the thrill a woman of her beauty deserved! Ending up back at her parents is not the life she had in mind, there is nothing dazzling about a handsome husband rutting with the women he drives on the job. When he promises a fresh start, instead they land in the ‘plainest, unhappiest looking homes’. The neighbor women don’t like her nor her fancy airs. Worse, Shug senior has made other plans for himself, and off he goes, blaming it on her weakness for drink, her refusal to give it up for love of him. Her vices cost her children more than just their image within the community, there is no money to stretch, nothing to eat. She isn’t adverse to pawning even her son Leek’s work tools!

As Agnes unravels, her children feel the worst of it but none more than her youngest, Shuggie. Without proper care and supervision his belly often goes empty, his ‘otherness’ making him a target for the other kids torture before he even knows what he is. In fact, adults even understand his sexuality better than him, in one horrifying moment he loses innocence, looking for his mother. His brother and sister both have different plans to escape this hellish life. Shuggie remains steadfast in his devotion to his mother, despite her humiliations and the added abuse he gets from adults and children alike for her actions. All manner of degradation enters his life too, and poverty isn’t just an aside in this story. It is ever present and suffocating. The story begins with Shuggie in a tenement, doing all he can just to survive, to feed and house himself despite his youth. Still striving, despite life never having given him one solitary gift, blessing. Maybe this strength is one inheritance he got from his mother Agnes, who even at her lowest went on with her head held high, kept going despite all the blows she received. You should hate her, you really should, but instead you just feel immense pity.

How does a child hold his own, with a mother who is always embarrassing herself and a father who is absent, uncaring, off making other families? Not every child can cling to the sinking ship, oldest sister Catherine has her own secret life with one Donald Jnr ‘away from their disintegrating mother’. But Leek was the one who wants to disappear the most! Leek, too, has too much to bear with his real father, who also ‘disappeared’ in his own way, or was pushed away. Whose to say? Leek is too young too feel so tired, so old trying to learn at the YTS site with the hopes of making a living, when in truth it is his art that is the only thing that can make him drop his shoulders in relaxation. So tired of his drunk mother and her poor decisions. Feeling abandoned too by his sister Catherine, in her new life abroad, he has nothing, no one. He can’t stay back and care for his sloppy mother nor his little brother, he too is striving for a different life. Living with Agnes is like doing time.

It is Shuggie who is her constant companion, and as the years rush on, each time he has faith she will quit drinking she fails, the dream collapses and not even fresh love can save her. Don’t expect salvation nor happy endings, this is based in the real world, not fantasy. Struggle makes you stronger, but you don’t magically get liberated from poverty with wishes and prayers. Shuggie is a survivor, and nothing in his life is easy but he just might make a friend along the way.

A heart-wrenching read that makes your problems seem flimsy. It’s not a glimpse at poverty and addiction, it is an extended stay and beautifully written despite the miseries visited upon the characters.

Publication Date: February 21, 2020

Grove Atlantic

 

The Hills Reply by Tarjei Vesaas

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Yet the face is deformed now, distorted and unlike itself, the result of the misfortunes that have come like avalanches- there behind him, where he has left his half-lived life. 

In prose and poetry this is the last book by Norwegian Author Tarjei Vesaas, said to be one of Norway’s greatest writer’s of the twentieth century. Memories flow, with nature ever present, indifferent to human longings, joys, love, and sufferings. Nature both capable of beauty and brutality,

As It Stands in the Memory, a father and son stand in the “sifting snow and sifting thoughts”; the silence of the snow disrupted only by the sternness of the father and his failure. A boy who doesn’t know his father, who keeps his thoughts, his forgotten dead dream to himself. A moment, when the son is shamed and will carry it on for the rest of his life, snow and a wounded horse as witness.

In the Marshes and on the Earth he feels eyes upon him, and these eyes belong to the cranes. The beauty of the birds so beautiful he wonders, is this a dream? He is the eyes now, the watcher, delighting in the dance of the cranes. He is in thrall of the flock.

Spring in Winter is about snowdrifts, heartbreak and the bewilderment in the holding of hands. How can one burn when they are so frozen by the elements, chilled by waiting for the heart’s desire? Sent as the bearer of bad news, only to see a beautiful girl in a different light?

Smashed mirrors, kicking out blindly for survival, the danger in the reflective surface of bodies of water, the “wet body is as heavy as stone”, so easy to drown. A thing (a person) can drown as easily as be saved. Rain falling upon the dead, “Five men. That’s not many. One for each finger on your hand.”  How did those five men end up where they are, forgotten, nothing. “No one will find them but the flies.”  Lyrical writing for so brutal an ending. A deadly ‘quiet’ in a grove. Nature absorbs what a young man feels, about a blushing girl.

It is a book moving through an old man’s life, I think. What better way to tell it then through lyrical delights? Sure, ‘the heart grows lonely’ and everything changes with time, ‘laws, highways, waterways’ and yet the memories plant themselves and remain waiting to be plucked.

I am also, after reading this fine book, very interested in reading The Birds by Vesaas, about a disabled man being cared for by his lonely older sister in an isolated land. I think nature as character is one of the hardest and yet most rewarding works one can conceive. It feels like a mystical experience, a dream (as with the cranes verses within) when one moves with nature, and it is perfectly captured here. A beautiful literary fiction book for anyone who loves lyrical prose. Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970)

Publication Date: December 10, 2019

Archipelgo

Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc

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Disability is not a monolith- every disabled person’s experience in the world is different, and the way that we all navigate the world is likewise varied and complex. 

This is one of the most beautiful books I have read in years. Fairy-tales are a part of our lives, serving as a model for modern day stories, often as lessons in morality, a warning, a guiding tale that even smacks of those early after school specials my generation was so fond of. Then there are the romances, a foundation on which so many little girls have built their castles, with a Prince waiting to save them. Beautiful girls, at least. What exactly is the measure of beauty? In nearly all of the well known tales, it certainly isn’t any character who has a disability, unless of course it is conquered, all that spell breaking, true love’s kiss, shucking off the ‘deformity’ or ‘madness’ or ‘disfigurement’. Disfigurement is only enchanting if it is has a use for the ‘able bodied’ narrative, and it’s often not something the ‘able-bodied’ think about. Amanda Leduc dissects many of the familiar fairy tales, and lesser known ones, to shed light on how the disabled are used, abused, or downright invisible in such stories. It’s eye opening, and disheartening. Growing up with Cerebral Palsy, Amanda certainly didn’t see any stories about little girls with her hospital stays, operations, struggles. Princesses only twirled with balletic perfection, they sure weren’t in wheel chairs, and if any characters had a disease or deformity, they were either evil, cursed, or imbeciles who are lucky to be mentioned at all. The goal is often landing the Prince or taking one’s rightful place on the throne, but it is always about golden beauty because anything less won’t procure a happy ending. How could anyone have a happy ending if they have a chronic illness, a disease, a disability, and don’t get me started on mental health? Happy endings while deformed? The horror of it!

While this book explores the theme of disability in fairy tales,  it is Leduc sharing how she has felt, and feels now, about her place in the world as defined by others, and herself. A child can have the most loving parents, but that child still must go out into the world, and face condescending attitudes, pity, cruelty even in our current time of awareness, (it is still half-assed awareness, though). Often, the person who has a disability or illness is meant to feel like it’s a special boon to be offered the same treatment the able-bodied receive. Maybe there are teaching moments, but does anyone you know want to be a poster child every waking moment of their life, or feel like a curiosity? For their body to be a horror story for another, one they just could’t survive if they had to reside in it? A big moment that hit me like a gut punch in the book is the idea that only in overcoming, ignoring everything from mental illness to very real pain and obstacles makes someone worthy because damn, it’s only a good life if the curse of sickness or imperfection is lifted! How is that for reality? Why should the world accommodate you, don’t you want to be just like the rest of us? Why are you so different? It is true, people equate disease, illness, disability, disfigurement as weak. Try harder! Rally around yourself! Go out in the sunshine! Sure…

My son grew up under the umbrella of autism, he didn’t look like he had struggles (what does that mean) and a label didn’t help as much as it should have, in fact often once educators knew how to define him, well he was no longer an individual, just an autistic. Some people meant well, others not so much. There were kind children, well meaning adults but attitudes tended to shift in the negative, with mocking,  laughter, and  exclusion, a forced feeling of isolation. Amanda’s story about her school journal made me heartsick, a violation as brutal as the wing scene in Maleficent. These things stick, we carry them with us. There are still hard times, he graduated college but still has obstacles, in real life unlike in fairy tales, there isn’t some spell that collecting the right ingredients will break, nor a quest that will allow some god or fairy to shine their benevolence upon him anymore than on the people who face each day of their life with their disability, illness. They aren’t asking for a gold star, special treatment, is it special treatment to be afforded dignity, accessibility, to be heard when speaking, understanding beyond a parking space or a toilet stall (that, let’s face it, more often than not is occupied by able-bodied folks)?

Disfigured is one of the most provocative books on disability I have read and I admit ignorance, there were connections I never thought about in the same light as Amanda. We are moving forward though at a snail’s crawl. I remember a commercial recently for a store selling Halloween costumes for children in wheel chairs, and I thought that is fantastic and yet ‘long overdue’. I fell the same about commercials serving as campaigns for acceptance showing skin with scars, freckles, vitiligo and how my daughter would have benefited from that when she was a little girl and at school was harassed by one constant question, ‘what is wrong with your skin.’  Inclusion is still a fight, resources are incredibly lacking in the school system alone, training isn’t always available, some schools push you to keep your kid separated not because it’s easier for the student but easier on everyone else, you think the adult world of disability is better? Amanda Leduc is right, who has fought more for everything they have? Why can’t they be represented in stories that children can look up to, beyond being a curse that love can fix, only of value when the disability or disfigurement is no more? Maybe with more voices being heard, the world can change, rather than push conformity.

This is a book everyone should read. Positive affirmations have their place, say if you have a cold, but this grin and bear it nonsense aimed towards people coping with obstacles so many of us cannot fathom just minimizes many lives, reduces real flesh and blood people. There is no shame in disability, different isn’t a tragedy and certainly our stories should include all of humanity. Happy endings, if we’re honest, don’t end in broken curses. Life is ups and downs, ill health, good health, loss and gains. There is no shame in needing medication, mobility aids, therapy… the shame is that it has been circulated as a tragedy, a horror story, a lesson in badness, evilness or that beauty is only one thing, ‘able-bodied’. My review does not do justice to the insights Amanda Leduc shares, absolutely read this book!

Publication Date: February 4, 2020

Coming soon

Coach House Books

Hurricane Dorian

Tackling reviews, catching up on reading and incredibly relieved that we aren’t being hit as bad as they predicted by Dorian. Thinking of the people in the Bahamas who are going to need a lot of help in recovery. I’ve been through a lot of Hurricanes growing up on the Space Coast and typhoons when we lived in Okinawa, Japan but what hit them is unfathomable. Today it is off the coast, right by us, now we wait for the heavy winds and rains. For now, just waiting but not going to be as bad. Reviews to follow throughout the week, so long as we keep power, looking like we should.

Once Removed: Stories by Colette Sartor

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But it was exhilarating to be fearful, to feel something other than an endless cycle of impatience, hope, grief, rage.

Once Removed is a collection filled with moments in our lives that threaten to spill over, overwhelmed with quiet suffering, desperate need to clutch at what is falling away. Sometimes the ugly, means things we think get exposed here, but full of raw honesty. In Bandit, Hannah finds it easier to form an intimacy with a young boarder named Rune than face the desperate hope and need on her husband’s face after a stunning loss. Sometimes it’s easier to reach for strangers when what needs to be faced is a pain like swallowing glass, our shared tragedies pushing us apart. How do we just ‘move on’, there is no timeline to healing.

In Daredevil, Grace is a sad mother trying to build a new life coming out of the storm of a broken home, fractured family. Her yearning to bond with her son, wounded and fragile is upended all the more by a sickly little girl named Noreen, whom she teaches along with her son in Sunday school. “Forgive me, Grace prayed sometimes after receiving Communion, forgive me for being thankful she’s not mine.”  All Grace wants is to lift she and her son out of this pit, this pain of ‘a family in ruins’, a shame she can’t repair the landscape of her own home but she tries, lord knows she tries. Why is her eight year old son always trying to get away from her? Why is he accepting dares, doing things that are always to his own detriment, turning away from her boundless love for him? Why can’t she protect him?

These are families with insurmountable distances between them, favorites who have jumped ship and left the least admired child behind to keep parents afloat, as in Jump. The pain of comparison that is born within families, the terror of one day creating your own family, always armed to defend oneself because no one else ever has your back. Could you, dare you attempt motherhood? Carrying the dead-horse of your own childhood, fearful you just don’t have it in you to be any good at parenting. Marney juggles the viciousness of jealousy, betrayal and need for her family to be intact, but her needs are never considered. How do you chose one over another, seems her mother certainly always chose her brother Winston first. Winston who has gone away, who holds his grudge tight. Marney’s love life isn’t any easier, as she butts heads with her boyfriend’s mother, relationships feel like a continuation of one’s own family saga. How is it some escape the madhouse and others are entrapped by it?

The stories are connected and when I got to Once Removed, it was a gut punch. How did we get here, something I think a lot of us ask about the awful moments we encounter in our lives? We try to be better people than we are, wedging ourselves into stories that were playing out before we stepped in, because everyone is anchored somewhere we are an uninvited, unwelcome guest. The push of wanting to heal what life breaks, the ache and sacrifice of parenting, the strange little families we must make in lieu of tragedy. Once Removed was a lump in my throat, being afraid when challenged, longing for things that seem forever outside the boundaries of your current reality, the cruelty of fate. Too, the silence we hold just to keep our family intact, the unsaid always a bigger fissure than what we explain.

What a collection! Families, how do we survive them? How do we survive without them? Hope that feels like disease, hope demands so much of us. Mothers and daughters, the push and pull of resentment and love, loyalties and how we divide them, the ache of it. Colette Sartor is an author to watch, she writes beautifully about the intricacies of relationships, imperfect situations and everything that follows the impact of tragedies. Yes, read this collection.

Publication Date: September 15, 2019

University of Georgia Press

 

 

 

 

Jacob’s Ladder: A Novel by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Polly Gannon

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I feel that if I don’t write this down it will all evaporate, disappear into oblivion. 

Man Booker International Prize nominee, Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novel Jacob’s Ladder tells us the story of Nora Ossetsky and her family, as far back as her grandfather (a third generation Swiss watchmaker) Pinchas Kerns, who moved to Kiev in 1873 to open a branch of watchworks and instead opened a watchmaking-and-repair shop. Despite his lack of interest in communism, and capitalism “he placed a high value on his craft, and viewed commerce almost with contempt” and “the watchmaker never read the Bible of communism” his children assimilated the ‘progressive ideas of humanity’. The family is one of close knit siblings, educated, happy until October of 1905 and a pogrom against Kiev’s Jews alters the course of their lives.

Fast forward to 1974: Nora is with her married lover, renowned theater director Tengiz where she is working as an artist in theater set design. Their days are filled with creative work, love and undying passion for each other. Seldom does Nora take an interest in her mother Amalia, whose own life seems to orbit around Andrei Ivanovich. The two seem nothing alike at times, and this exchange really moved me, as it seems Nora is irritated by her mother Amalia’s joy and it’s telling of Nora’s more cynical nature.

‘Amalia had positively bloomed from country life, and she laughed constantly”…

“What are you smiling about?” Nora asked.

“About everything,”Amalia answered, suddenly very serious, her smile gone. “Learn now, Nora, before it’s too late.”

Abruptly, the Chekhov play Nora and Tengiz are working on is shut down on the eve of its premiere, he flees back to the arms of his wife and child in Tbilisi, “the love cloud had vanished.” This is their sixth parting, and Nora can’t moon over losing him for long, after all going away ‘forever going away’ is what he is best at. He always finds his way back to her. For now, she has a new project and she turns to Vitya Chebotarev and here a fork, the story reaches back to their meeting and the link between them, one that fires up his mother Varvara’s hatred for Nora.

The characters are complex, Yurik ( Nora’s child) and his wonder often tickled my heart as I pondered ‘where do these beings we birth come from, similar to us in some ways carrying their ancestors in their DNA with similar features of those long departed and yet the things their strange little hearts think and say, their longings so different from our own?’ We try so hard to understand each other while sometimes not even fully aware of ourselves. Of Nora: “Nora was pitiless to everyone, not least to herself.” Of Vitya: Despite his unusual memory and his innate abilities in logical thought, he was emotionally rather backward , and had not an iota of a sense of humor. 

The family saga includes Nora’s grandfather Jacob Ossetsky’s diary entries, a man of musical passions, and desire for a beautiful girl named Maria (Marusya). The pair will join together, and spend their love in a life of letters, separated for so very long. Later those same letters collecting time in a willow chest, ignored, nearly forgotten. Simply another link in a tangled family chain that goes back and forth between the past and present. A heavy sorrowful tale of separation, isolation.

Nora becomes a single mother to her son Yurik, a strange child whom sometimes seems more her equal than her little boy. Of course Tengiz is always on the periphery of Nora’s life and Yurik’s. There was theater, now there is film! He always has something on the horizon. Vitya too is an important player, but half in and half out. He seems led about by Nora, resigned to whatever plans befall him, for a time anyway. Like an echo from past, Jacob’s love of music is birthed anew in Yurik’s very cells, a lifelong passion. Where will it take our strange little fellow?

With Vitya’s ‘trained mind’ and interest in the computer revolution, it is through his mathematical brain and the whims of fate (or his mother Varvara’s fervent hopes) that he is invited to a conference in the United States of America, where life finally blooms, maybe even love is in the stars? So too Nora and Tengiz find themselves in America when Western audiences become ‘ecstatic’ over their work, but only for a visit.  How changed Vitya is!  Back home, Nora worries about her son and how he needs something to occupy his heart and soul fully.  Time flows, death has come to her door as it must for us all, teaching her things she didn’t understand about her mother and father. Yurik finally makes it to America, is ingesting more than music, and changes his life, but is it for better or worse?

Boats to other shores, love letters, loneliness, diary entries, Russian theater, progressive single mothers, here we feel the ravages of time and place upon one family. It may not engage everyone, as we spend time with each generation the history is rich, the letters feel genuine with details some may find mundane, but what are days of life spent absented from all you desire if not mundane? The shackles of politics don’t often give us the freedom for fun and thrills. The characters are all wildly different from one another, as people are. The “storms of love” between Nora and Tengiz are imperfect and yet fitting somehow for this creative pair. The love story of her mother Amalia and Andrei is beautiful, yes even old folks can have sweet stories, even if it comes late. Where you live alters the course of your life, how can it not? But the promise of a new place, say America, isn’t always fruitful for everyone either. There are traps we can all fall into, even if the true obstacle is ourselves. We carry on, that is our only true job. The past has its tragedies through revolutions, upheavals, politics, and with the demands of the fatherland breathing down your neck how can any one person fulfill their future hopes? How can love and family ever be together, in their right and proper places, nice and safe and free? Must we look to the future, instead, our children and their children after them, even if we never meet them? Can our descendants carry on our desires? For one family, yes and no.

Old age comes for Nora “youth ended, never to return”, for those of us lucky enough to live full lives into our ‘dotage’ so to speak, that is a given. Will she finally find happiness in ways her ancestors could only hope for in the Russia they knew? You must read.

Publication Date: July 9, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux