In this beautifully observed debut, a son wrestles with the possibility of assisted suicide for his mother, stricken with Alzheimer’s.
Responsibility was the watchword for Ellen from the get-go. The oldest of five, she began taking care of her siblings when she was only ten; her otherworldly parents were in church. At 16, she decided to become a nurse; during her 30-year career, she wrote a successful nursing textbook. Now, still only 56, this good woman is a near-vegetable in a Buffalo, N.Y., nursing home, muttering nonsense words; her moments of lucidity are rare. Four years earlier, at the onset of her disease and understanding what lay ahead, she had confided in her son James that she was considering suicide; aghast, he had dissuaded her. But the 28-year-old, now trying gamely to connect with his mother, is having second thoughts. James, the narrator and protagonist, had left Buffalo for Brooklyn and a job writing greeting cards. Back home for Thanksgiving, he is thinking seriously about a mercy killing, but his father Rodney, a retired office manager, is dead set against the idea. Rodney is a stand-up guy, a stoic witness to his wife’s condition (he visits every day) and a decent if uncommunicative father. James had been a rebel with a drinking problem and is only now settling into adulthood. His more self-confident sister Kate is also back for the holiday with her lesbian partner; family dynamics are all-important here. Ames skillfully counterpoints James’s nursing-home visits with boozy reunions with old friends and sprinkles in interviews with Buffalo locals taken from an oral history James once compiled. These interviews highlight a strain of exuberant eccentricity in the otherwise dour city, and they provide bright splashes of narrative color. The satisfying and credible resolution, lightly foreshadowed, will come as a surprise.
A novel about hard choices and doing the right thing that is modest, moving and true.