A woman looks back on her dysfunctional family life growing up in New Jersey and abroad.
As much a profile of her disturbed mother as a memoir of the author’s youth, Ann’s crisp, assured memoir presents a depressing landscape inhabited by damaged people. The story begins in 2004 with the author driving from Alaska to the Appalachians to visit her aged mother. “Can…you…forgive…me?” her mother asks—an ominous foreshadowing of what’s to come. The story then flashes back to the 1950s, with the author the youngest child of an Italian-American factory worker and an Irish woman he’d met in England at the end of World War II. Ann was a daddy’s girl but feared early on that her depressed mother, Eileen, didn’t love her family. After divorcing Ann’s passive father, Eileen tried to turn their kids against him. Spiraling down to shabby neighborhoods and taverns, she married an officer in the Army Corps of Engineers, and the family’s fortunes improved even if their home life didn’t. Eileen—“an alcoholic Irish floozy with a passel of half-grown brats”—tried to fit into middle-class suburban life by hiding her kids in the basement, belittling them to strangers, and converting to Protestantism. Equally unsuccessful at assimilating, Ann moved with the family to the Azores and Okinawa, becoming even more of an outsider and eventually being institutionalized back in New Jersey. The book ends decades later with Ann as a grown woman in Alaska, reflecting on the deaths of her mother and her middle-aged sister, who had tried to live up to their mother’s impossible standards. The clear, sometimes darkly humorous, and often beautiful writing runs counterpoint to the craziness and ugliness of the life Ann describes. She delivers a powerfully sad story, at times dwelling a bit too much on the quotidian activities of childhood, such as playing doctor with a young neighbor boy. But the tales of this broken family ring true and resonate in the personal details the author reveals. All the characters are lifelike and believable in their human imperfections. Especially convincing is the finely wrought portrait of a mother who seems to hate her life and, often, even her children.
Beautifully wrought memoir of a modest American dream morphing into a terrible nightmare.