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MY mother was forever misjudging — not just distance and direction but the sturdiness of the barriers erected between her and what she so desperately desired. I should know. I was one of them."
Replete with compassion, wit and heartache, this engaging memoir by the American author Richard Russo chronicles the life of his mother, Jean Findlay.
It is a portrait of a complex, tragically flawed woman seen through the unblinking eye of her devoted son.
A novelist and screenwriter, Russo is best known for his novel Empire Falls, which garnered the 2002 Pulitzer Prize and for which he wrote the screenplay for the HBO film version starring Paul Newman.
The novel tells the story of small town life and familial demands. In addition, Russo wrote the screenplays for two of his other novels, Nobody's Fool and Straight Man. Russo currently resides in coastal Maine. This is his 10th book.
Findlay was 25 when Russo was born in 1949. Her story begins in Gloversville, the upstate New York town where she raised her son as a single mother in the house they shared with her parents. An only child, Russo experienced a happy childhood, surrounded by many cousins who lived close by.
His father, a compulsive gambler left when Russo was a baby. However, they later met while working together in construction, the means by which Russo financed his university career.
Findlay was a bright woman with a good job at General Electric and she regarded herself as an independent woman. However, Russo remembers her as "a strange mix of stubborn confidence and acute anxiety."
During his childhood in the '50s, she started to take anti-depressants and was mostly OK, except for an occasional meltdown.
Findlay had always encouraged Russo to leave Gloversville, so he attended university in Arizona. Despite her parents' reservations about her "condition," Findlay impulsively quit her job to join him there. But after two failed marriages and a series of dead-end jobs, Findlay's physical and mental health declined.
Accordingly, Russo stepped in to offer moral support and intervene on her behalf, moving her to wherever his college teaching career took him.
Each chapter of the book's unassuming, sure-footed narrative pinpoints a pivotal moment in Findlay's life journey. These include her relocation to Phoenix, her subsequent return to Gloversville and her deteriorating mental state.
The final two chapters deal with Findlay's death in 2007 and her maternal influence on Russo, especially a few similarities in their behaviour — their love of books and tendency towards obsession.
At university, Russo fixated on pinball and gambling until halfway through his PhD, when writing fiction became his passion.
Ever the storyteller, Russo then describes an unexpected revelation by his daughter that gives him pause to reconsider the role he played in Findlay's life.
At several junctures, Russo's humour adds a touch of levity to often dire circumstances. One hilarious example is the 4,000-kilometre trip to Arizona with his mother. Newly licensed and unused to highways, he drove an under-powered used car with no reverse gear.
Readers already acquainted with Russo's books will recognize the parallels between his life and familiar details in his novels — the small-town blue-collar setting, the tangled history of its inhabitants and the devastating effect of the tanneries.
The memoir even mentions Russo's childhood holiday with his mother in Martha's Vineyard, a trip similar to the one taken by a character in Empire Falls.
Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and editor.