2.5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
This is a book that has all the ingredients I normally love: it’s a heartwarming memoir about a daughter dealing with her mother’s dementia, with strong family bonds, fiercely independent female protagonists, mother-daughter-grandmother angst, and warmth. It even has recipes (what a clever touch!) and a lot of loving details about food and rituals. Yet despite it having all of the necessary elements that should have made me love it, I just didn’t. There are some admittedly well-written moments that are touching, sad, or just feel startlingly true and thus wonderful… but overall, I just didn’t connect with this family. The father figure feels like a bit of a lopsided villain/caricature, and the pacing/writing, though mostly clear, just didn’t really grab me. I was excited to find this book, but finishing it felt a bit like a chore…
Alex Witchel’s a successful writer and reporter who has a husband and two stepsons. She’s one of four children, and when she finds out that her mother, a woman with an Ed.D. a college professor who has always been fiercely independent, has dementia, she initially believes she can help. There is a solution, and it’s just a matter of finding it.
Now, what’s interesting to me here is that these are both interesting women that I somehow couldn’t connect with. The mother in particular really sounds like someone you’d want to sit down and have a chat with about her life– she got an advanced degree and was a working mother in a neighborhood that clearly frowned upon (and was somewhat scandalized by) such behavior. She escaped her own mother’s matchmaking attempts at setting her up with the rabbi’s son. Though I’d initially pictured her as one of those thin flitting birdlike women, she’s actually morbidly obese and was addicted to junk food before such a classification even existed. The daughter is also quite interesting — you see her growing up, interacting with her grandmother (considered low class by Alex’s father), becoming successful and trying to recreate her mother and various memories in the kitchen, because there’s no “contract tighter than a family recipe.”
Still, I never really saw these women clearly — part of that is because they’re layered; the layering comes in different chapters sometimes, to the point where you almost feel like it’s not so much a deepening understanding of the character, but a completely different facet… so much so that you lose your previous understanding of that person. While each individual chapter has its interesting moments, it really didn’t hold together for me as a fluid novel, despite the premise and the wonderful ingredients. Which is a shame, because the final chapter (especially the last half of the final chapter) is quite beautiful… but I can’t recommend an entire book based on a few fleetingly good moments and a lovely ending.
Comparisons to Other Authors:
I really haven’t read enough memoirs to be able to compare this properly — Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was a far richer memoir that was more emotionally compelling and richly layered… then again, it was a bestseller that was turned into a movie (his followup Teacher Man was far less good, but I would probably still rate it above this one). If I were to compare it to literary fiction (such as Julian Barnes’s The Lemon Table, which deals a little with aging and caretaking, or David Gates’s short story “The Mail Lady” from Wonders of the Invisible World) I would still pick those… though it might not be fair to compare fiction to nonfiction, despite the similar subject matter.