Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Elsewhere by Richard Russo

If they were believers, I would say that Barbara (especially her) and Richard Russo, one of my all-time favorite authors, should be canonized. It took me a long time to figure out why Russo felt that he had to pen this memoir, which revolves around his mother, Jean, her emotional instability, and its effects on her son and his wife. I suppose that it was cathartic in a way that spreading her ashes in the waters off Martha's Vineyard was not.

I believe that most of us tend to soften our views of our personal history as we age. I know that I certainly see my mom in a different light now, almost thirty years after her death, than I did as a younger woman. And the book that I might write about her now would be a much more compassionate one than the one I might have written when I was thirty and we were still, it seems, at loggerheads.

Richard Russo lived the burden of being an only child which likely added to his sense of responsibility where his mother was concerned. His father had exited the picture early on because he understood that his wife was - his term - crazy. In fact, she was mentally ill with at least two separate disorders that would be rather easily treated today. In the '40's and '50's what Jean Russo suffered from was "nerves," an affliction that was underestimated and over medicated.

The reviews for this memoir have pretty much been outstanding but, true confessions, I can't say that I enjoyed it all that much. Hoping for a deeper insight into a writer whom I admire so much, whose last novel I glowingly reviewed for Library Journal, I decided to listen to the book because Mr. Russo himself did the narration. What I discovered was that Russo came across as rather peevish. His wife Barbara? A living saint!

What was so striking to this outsider is how blatantly Jean Russo manipulated her son and how he enabled her bad behavior, at first because he was too young to recognize it for what it was, and later, as an adult who should have known better, because he simply didn't have the heart or strength to stand up.
 From the age of five or six, he was told that he was her "rock," the only person she could count on, even though she rented an apartment in her parents' home and relied upon them for financial support to supplement her work at General Electric.

When Richard was eighteen he decided to matriculate in a college in Arizona, so his mother, rather than be left behind, tells Richard that she's taking a job at a GE plant in Phoenix, and proceeds to move across country with him. That initial move sets the precedent that will inform the next forty years of Richard's life, a series of moves with mom and her books in tow. You might say that he's just being a dutiful son but there's something more going on here and you'd have to read the book to understand just how bizarre it becomes.

I have always had an irrational fear of irrationality. I hate family drama of any kind and tend to distance myself more and more as I age because of memories from childhood, not to mention seventeen years in a marriage that never knew a peaceful day. So, listening to Russo's Elsewhere actually began to scrunch my stomach up in knots.

I was so sure that Jean would finally be successful in keeping Richard all to herself, driving Barbara and their two girls away when they couldn't take it any longer. The neediness, the late night phone calls, the demanding expectations and financial help, how could he keep his sanity? How could he teach and continue to write and put out these marvelous novels while still jumping at her every beck and call?

Well folks, of course he did, and the reading public should be mighty grateful. I didn't calm down until the last chapter of the memoir in which Mr. Russo finally began to come to grips with the idea that his mother had plainly been suffering from a disorder for which there is a name and a treatment. It was too late for her but not too late for Russo's daughter who began to exhibit similar symptoms.

So, should you read it? Well, if you love Richard Russo as much as I do, you'll have to - just because. If not, you might take a look at a primer in how not to raise an only child.

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