A debut memoir explores childhood challenges and their hard-won resolutions.
McCloe guides readers through her painful 1950s childhood and the in-depth psychotherapy that eventually allowed her to be at peace with its consequences. Growing up in Philadelphia as the middle of five sisters in a conservative Italian family, the author faced demons large and small, from her mother’s staid secrecy to a bout of rheumatic fever that left her hospitalized for a year. McCloe intersperses vivid stories of that childhood with scenes of her adult self on her therapist’s couch, processing the persistence of her early troubles across later decades. In the book’s second half, the author moves from examining her childhood in detail and instead zooms out to give readers an overview of the years that followed, from the youthful heartbreak of an ill-fated marriage to the complexities of finding love again in her later years. While the childhood dramas she describes are tame in comparison to the experiences of prominent memoirists like Jeannette Walls and Alexandra Fuller, McCloe nonetheless excels at conjuring a child’s perspective of the strains of an unstable family life. Overhearing her mother discussing her hospitalization for rheumatic fever, the author writes: “I waited and wondered if I was now just half a sister to my sisters.” That keen sense of fear tinged with magical thinking pervades the book’s first half, and the author’s ability to bring the reader deep into the emotions of her childhood is its greatest strength. The narrative flags after the midpoint, losing its tight focus on the author’s early life and instead becoming a descriptive catalog of McCloe’s later experiences. The author’s therapy sessions also take on greater prominence in the book’s latter half, and while the insights she gains there are often compelling, the descriptions of the sessions themselves feel like unnecessary repetitions of tired tropes: “How did you feel when your mother kept secrets?” Dr. A asked one day. Still, McCloe’s examination of her struggles with interpersonal relationships is sincere and thoughtful, and her hopeful interpretation of those challenges will likely inspire readers who have undergone similar trials.
An uneven narrative about the author’s personal struggles, but it is sensitively rendered.