A glum and rather austere novel from Stein (The Lynching Tree, 2000, etc.) describes a young man’s reactions to his mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s.
Our unnamed narrator, at 35, seems to be just coming to terms with adult life. An English teacher at a Providence, Rhode Island, high school, he grew up in northern New Jersey in the 1970s and lost his father (also a schoolteacher) when he was 14. Since then, he has been mostly on his own—his mother took an apartment in Manhattan not long after her husband died and left her son to fend for himself in the New Jersey home—but his early independence appears to have been more burden than liberation, leaving him somewhat embittered toward his mother for years afterward. The situation changes abruptly when she begins showing signs of dementia in her early 70s, and the son moves her to Providence, arranging for her to live in Cherry Orchard, an upscale retirement home. With the roles reversed, mother now dependent on son, he begins to feel a responsibility that initially arouses much of his old ambivalence but eventually mellows into a kind of peace. Much of the story portrays the mundane realities of the mother’s new life—doctor’s visits, financial arrangements, new neighbors—interspersed with the son’s reflections on Alzheimer’s and his memories of his childhood and upbringing. The account is at once intimate and highly impersonal—we read the mother’s private correspondence, for example, but never learn her name—and becomes, in the end, as superficially rich and thoroughly claustrophobic as the nursing home it’s set in.
Moving without a hint of sentimentality: an extremely sad and emotionally realistic tale of normal, troubled life as it is lived in the face of sickness and death.