In Mueller’s third (The Climate of the Country, 1999, etc.), a woman whose history closely parallels the author’s bio, nurses her dying mother and attempts to come to terms with their troubled relationship.
A writer and former Peace Corps worker happily married to an Argentinean psychiatrist in New York, Sarah has come to Puerto Rico, where her mother Reba battles the last stages of cancer. Mueller depicts the weakening old woman’s gradual loss of dignity with painful accuracy, but her real focus is Sarah, whose day-by-day account of Reba’s physical deterioration alternates with narratives from the younger woman’s early family memories. Reba forsook her Jewish roots to marry a labor organizer who earned little money and frequently moved. Teaching school to support the family, she suppressed her own ambitions while taking out her frustrations on Sarah. Always the dutiful daughter on the surface, Sarah still seethes with inward anger toward her mother, an anger so great that she has decided not to have children of her own, to avoid the risk of inflicting her own childhood unhappiness on them. Although depicted in hostile detail, Reba’s past sins as an overly involved, overly critical, yet neglectful parent never accumulate into a convincing case of parental abuse. In fact, Reba comes across as a typically flawed mother whose faults do not negate her love for husband and daughter and who does not deserve middle-aged Sarah’s unrelenting, increasingly tiresome antagonism. Sarah picks at her hostility toward Reba like a scab, never moving beyond her adolescent resentments. More engaging is a subplot of the uneasy friendship she develops with Reba’s Puerto Rican housekeeper, Lydia. Lydia is warm and wise, but because her boyfriend has a history of drug use, Sarah mistrusts the motives behind the woman’s affection. Ultimately, Sarah accepts Lydia in a way she can never accept her mother.
An earnest, if sometimes oppressive, exploration of well-worn territory.