Elsewhere: A Memoir by Richard Russo. Publisher: Knopf (December 2012). Memoir. Hardcover. 243 pages. ISBN: 978-0-307-95953-9.
Richard Russo doesn’t write particularly empathetic female characters. Writers write what they know and any psychiatrist might extrapolate the relationship with his mother from his novels. In Elsewhere, Russo describes a mother so dependent on her son that she follows him constantly, across the country from New York to Arizona and back to Maine. She suffers various afflictions and anxieties though never seeks any medicinal or therapeutic help. Russo’s a fantastic writer but there’s an arrogance to this. He writes, “From the time I was a boy I understood that my mother’s health, her well-being, was in my hands.” Just how much does he resent his mother?
“My mother’s ‘condition.’ This was something the whole family seemed aware of, but no one talked about it. One word, nerves, was evidently deemed sufficient to describe, categorize, stigmatize, and dismiss it.”
Russo left the factory town of Gloverstown, New York in 1967. He writes of it often—Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool, The Whore’s Child—but he’s never been back. When Russo enters the University of Arizona, his mother tells him she’s left her well-paying job and will move to Arizona as well. She needs a fresh start too, after all. This continues. He finds apartment after apartment for his mother wherever he’s living. While exhibiting a snobby outward appearance she’s becoming increasingly shaky and unsure of herself. She claims independence and feigns disdain when Russo offers assistance.
She can’t understand why her son, an accomplished scholar, a PhD, continues to write about their mired hometown. She’s never satisfied. Russo says one kind thing about his mother and that’s her accumulation of books and her establishment of some sort of library—“If a stranger came into her apartment, a quick scan of her books would give him a pretty good idea of who she was, whereas all he could say about ours was, Boy, these people sure have a lot of books.” When his daughter gets diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder [OCD], Russo ponders his mother through a diagnostic lens. Mental illness can skip a generation. Elsewhere is quite stark yet enthralling, honest. This memoir now becomes part of my library.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.