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by Elise Juska

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-7434-9350-8
Publisher: Downtown Press/Pocket

Divorced mother, living in barely-there fashion, gets knocked for a loop when real life comes crashing in.

It’s hard to resist a good tale of emotional thaw about a closed-down soul who’s reawakened to the messy highs and lows of the world outside some carefully structured sanctum. This helps explain the success of Juska’s second outing (after Getting Over Robert Wagner, 2002) but doesn’t completely cover it. Our frozen heroine is Charlotte, on the downhill side of her 40s and divorced for 15 years, living alone in a sterile New Jersey condo with strong-willed daughter Emily, in her early 20s and her mother’s exact opposite. At the start, Charlotte is a nightmarish control freak (with family money to support her) who has little to occupy her days and so spends them in a strict regimen of small tasks: cleaning, running errands, getting manicures, watching Jeopardy every night without fail. Given her neuroses, the departures of Emily (first for college, then for a house in New Hampshire that she shares with her black boyfriend Walter) and the earlier one of husband Joe (for Seattle and a more glamorous wife) leave her free to develop a truly unhealthy set of routines and worries. Juska’s portrait of her, though, is an exacting one and hews, however uncomfortably, close to the truth. Charlotte is every mother who wants nothing more than for her children to move back home, who secretly desires their misery in order to feel needed, and who takes every independent action by those same children as a rebuke of her values. There are neighborhoods full of Charlottes, and Juska’s skill in portraying this one is strong enough that her latest is a powerful success in spite of its tendency to melodrama: an unexpected pregnancy, a crisis over Walter’s race, far too many heart-to-heart discussions.

Mother-daughter fiction of the best flawed sort where, in the midst of cliché, a genuinely admirable amount of truth shines forth.