Sebold (The Lovely Bones, 2002, etc.) once again navigates dark territory, this time the inner landscape of a middle-aged woman who impulsively kills her aged mother.
Since her divorce years earlier, 49-year-old Helen, the mother of two grown daughters, has lived in the Pennsylvania town where she grew up. She works as an artist’s model at the local college but mostly takes care of her mother Claire. One evening, undone by frustration at 88-year-old Claire’s increasing incapacitation and dementia, Helen suffers a momentary lapse of reason and suffocates the old woman in the house Claire has not left for years. Helen has been equally trapped, both hating and loving her mother to the detriment of everything else in her life. Now Helen hides Claire’s body in the basement freezer and calls her ex-husband Jake. Although they have not seen each other in years, he immediately hops a plane from California to help her through the crisis. Meanwhile, for reasons that never quite wash, Helen has sex with the 30-year-old son of her best friend. Soon after Jake arrives, he acknowledges that he never wanted their divorce. Then the police find Claire’s body and begin asking questions. The novel follows Helen’s inner turmoil as she confronts what she has done and relives her past—particularly her terrible childhood: As a mother, Claire could be charming but was increasingly mentally ill, and Helen’s gentle, loving father made Claire largely Helen’s responsibility from an early age while he escaped to his secret haven. Helen now plans her own escape. She steals a gun to commit suicide, as her father did. But realizing that she has enjoyed the love of good men and wonderful children, Helen has a change of heart and waits to face her fate.
Sebold may have her finger on the pulse of a certain middle-aged zeitgeist here, but her navel-gazing central character is more tedious than tragic.