Health aides and residents of an assisted living facility deal with challenges while a space shuttle makes its first orbit.
In this historical novel, de la Cuesta (On the River This Morning, 2014) follows several health aides and patients at an assisted living facility in the Boston suburb of Waltham in 1981. The book’s first section is narrated primarily by Priscilla, who traces her family’s prominent local roots as she commutes to her job cleaning up the incontinent elderly. Interspersed throughout Priscilla’s section are updates from the space shuttle Columbia, making its first trip to space (“A hundred and seventy miles above the Earth, Columbia passes over gypsum sands, the Tularosa Basin. Young and Crippen sleep”), which provides a counterpoint to the dramas of patients Wolfie, Alcide Arsenault, Adie, and Megan. In the second section, patient Henrietta Rose tells stories of confronting her alcoholism and her many years spent overseas (“She recalls the dinners that she used to hostess…Henrietta’s extravaganzas, people called them, there on that plateau of Sogamoso…dusky little wives of her husband’s underling engineers…the waiters in and out with appetizers, children underfoot in nighties…barman, who had had a few himself just after midnight”). The final section of the book is narrated by Priscilla’s colleague Rosa Mundo, whose relationship with Wolfie is more than professional, and who tells the story of a health care workers’ strike that challenges the characters to balance self-interest, community goals, and altruism. De la Cuesta is at her strongest in building the book’s setting, painting a vivid portrait of 1981 Waltham that demonstrates how little the city has changed in three decades (“She skirts the Common with its warm lights and reassuring bus passengers at the south end, and goes straight up Moody without her morning detour over the little footbridge by the Mill”), and renders the Charles River a character of as much importance in Priscilla’s life as her children are. But the book’s stream-of-consciousness style and the author’s decision to present dialogue without quotation marks or other tags (“I so proud of you, Rosa says. I never hear of a teacher like that./I love her, Esmeralda says. All the girls love her”) makes for challenging and often tedious reading, amplified by the book’s excessive length.
An artistic stream-of-consciousness novel of health care workers and their patients in 1980s Massachusetts.