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Richard Russo's memoir of life with his mother is a vivid if devastating portrait of the complicated relationship that overshadowed his life.

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Trying to help his mother find ever-elusive happiness, Russo gets sucked into what he acknowledges is "a dangerous loop of repetitive behavior." How to jeopardize a new marriage? Allow your mother to move into the cramped trailer you're living in while working your way through graduate school, not just teaching but singing in a restaurant to earn extra cash. Each relocation during his "academic nomadship" is complicated by the need to find suitable housing nearby for his mother. "Couldn't she, just this once, have what she wanted?" whines this woman who repeatedly scoffs at what assisted living can offer because "my son does all that."

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Russo brings the remarkable compassion he's known for in his fiction to this account of filial forbearance taken to exasperating extremes. "It was from my mother that I learned reading was not a duty but a reward, and from her that I intuited a vital truth: most people are trapped in a solitary existence, a life circumscribed by want and failures of imagination, limitations from which readers are exempt. You can't make a writer without first making a reader, and that's what my mother made me," he writes with heartfelt appreciation.

But mainly he tries to untangle their warped dynamic and the constant "domestic triage" to which it led. The root cause of her misery doesn't become clear until after her protracted death, when one of his daughters is diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Untreated, her doctor tells them, it will eat her alive.  Aha.

A salient aspect of his mother's OCD, he realizes in retrospect, was obsessive, dogged rigidity – an inability to change course easily. He writes that "because of her inflexible adherence to poor sequencing she was forever discovering, too late, that her ship, which could easily have been turned around while out at sea, now had to be rotated in the cramped harbor." To extend his lovely metaphor: The tugboat charged with this difficult maneuver was, of course, her stalwart son. 

Worried about his similarities with the mother ship, Russo comforts himself with the realization that novel-writing involves "living with and welcoming uncertainty." We might add that his chosen field enables him – the by-and-large contented, successful son of a woman who always wanted to be elsewhere – to satisfy that urge through his imagination. This is not only his good fortune, but ours.

Heller McAlpin writes the Reading in Common column for The Barnes & Noble Review and reviews books for NPR, The Post, and other publications.


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