by Richard Russo
Random House Audio, 2012
Review by Christian Perring on Mar 19th 2013
Russo's memoir is about his relationship with his mother Jean, a difficult woman who he had to help for much of his life. She was divorced from his father, but she still lived in Gloversville, New York after the breakup, and she had a good job with IBM. It was a depressed town with glove factories that had gone out of business, and Jean wanted to get out. When Russo moved to Arizona to attend the university there, his mother also moved, not to the same town, but to a nearby city. That is an unusual idea for a mother to carry out. But it didn't work out, and after a failed relationship, she moved back east. She found it hard to settle down and she resented relying on other people to help her, even though she often needed that help. She was nearly always unhappy with her situation and wanted to go somewhere else. Russo was her only child, and he felt a responsibility to help his mother, but he also felt enormously frustrated that she was so difficult to help. It was a forgone conclusion that she would not be happy with his efforts, especially after he got married, and no longer would she and her son be in an alliance together.
Fans of Russo's work will not only enjoy this memoir for its story of his mother's life, but also for the light it sheds on his well-known novels that feature run-down industrial towns in upstate New York. He tells of his career from graduate school to his first visiting jobs in college English departments, his longer term position at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and his transition to being a full time writer. But it is his mother and her emotional troubles that are at the center of the work, and at the end of the book he discusses his ideas about what made her life such a trial for her. He argues that she had a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, and that all her demands on others stemmed from her terrible anxiety. She was never diagnosed with OCD, and his hypothesis only came to him after her death, so it could never be verified in an independent way. He also mentions that his wife is less sure than he is that OCD explains all of Jean Russo's quirks, although he does not say what her disagreement stems from. As readers, we are in no position to judge what the truth of the matter is. What's more interesting is the way that Russo's feelings change once he comes to feel that his mother had an undiagnosed disorder all her life. He comes to feel particularly bad that the problem was never adequately dealt with, and this heightens his sense of tragedy about her life.
Russo reads his own memoir for the unabridged audiobook, and he is a wonderful performer. He brings great energy and emotion to the reading, which is unusual for writers, who are more often rather dull readers or their own work. In this case, having Russo read his own memoir really adds to the listening experience.
© 2013 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York