mother & son, city street

(photo: Thomas Hawk, creative commons license)

By Richard Russo – This memorable book thoroughly and compassionately deconstructs the complex and intense relationship of a son and his troubled mother in “one of the most honest, moving American memoirs in years,” said Michael Schaub for NPR. Russo’s mother Jean suffered from “nerves” throughout her lifetime. She was a demanding, needy person, not unaware of her own flaws and shortcomings, and intermittently troubled by them. Russo, an only child, was her rock. She was also a pretty, lively woman, who went to extraordinary lengths to maintain the illusion she was living an independent life.

Only after Jean’s death did Russo learn enough about obsessive-compulsive disorder to fit the facts of her behavior to the characteristics of this syndrome, making a post hoc layman’s diagnosis. And only then did he come to the heartbreaking realization that his way of helping her might not have been the help she needed. She may have been a frustrating parent, but she just couldn’t help it.

The writing here is smooth as silk and contains great deal of humor. The well-rounded picture of the complex and loving mother-son relationship that Russo creates makes the reader more keenly feel the guilt Russo has suffered, despite his heroic efforts to respond to her plea, It’s you I need. (Meanwhile, in my opinion, Russo’s wife Barbara is a candidate for sainthood.)

He also gives a vivid picture of his home town of Gloversville, New York—a back-on-its-heels former leather-manufacturing town, whose tanneries poisoned workers and the watershed alike (he won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls, another post-industrial sad-sack of a town). Russo’s mother Jean couldn’t wait to get out of there, except when she couldn’t wait to get back. This cycle had a depressing regularity that continued for decades.

These are people well worth knowing and a relationship that’s understood far better than I understand what in the world went on with my own parents. Tiny bit jealous of Russo’s ability—the intellectual and emotional honesty and the depth of insight—to pull this one off so well.

2 thoughts on “*****Elsewhere

    • Your review is lovely. I like your point that the memoir is written with a novelist’s sensibilities, and that is certainly true–adds greatly to the readability. Nice!

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