A witty, tender memoir of a son's journey home to care for his irascible mother - a tale of secrets, silences, and enduring love When George Hodgman leaves Manhattan for his hometown of Paris, Missouri, he finds himself - an unlikely caretaker and near-lethal cook - in a head-on collision with his aging mother, Betty, a woman of wit and will. Will George lure her into assisted living? When hell freezes over. He can't bring himself to force her from the home both treasure - the place where his father's voice lingers, the scene of shared jokes, skirmishes, and, behind the dusty antiques, a rarely acknowledged conflict: Betty, who speaks her mind but cannot quite reveal her heart, has never really accepted the fact that her son is gay. As these two unforgettable characters try to bring their different worlds together, Hodgman reveals the challenges of Betty's life and his own struggle for self-respect, moving listeners from their small town - crumbling but still colorful - to the star-studded corridors of Vanity Fair. Evocative of The End of Your Life Book Club and The Tender Bar, Hodgman's debut is both an indelible portrait of a family and an exquisitely told tale of a prodigal son's return.
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Once again the publisher summary misleads. Saying that this memoir is like The End of Life Book Club is just plain ridiculous. The only thing these two books have in common is that they are stories about a mother who is dying and her son. The End of Life Book Club is a loving eulogy written by a son. In that book the mother still has insight and the ability to read a collection of books with her son and discuss them. They connect.
This book starts out funny. Bitingly funny. Everything is a joke. Betty is portrayed as a character, a card, a total individual. A woman who cares deeply about her talents, appearance, her place in her community and most of all what people think. It is cringeworthy how she is laid bare with all her foibles hung out on the wash line to dry.
To me, there is a great deal of anger in the author's humor. Sharp anger that cuts deep, exposes and wounds.
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that a memoir by a former editor should be so well written, but this one has exceptional pacing. We start with the caregiving aspect, as expected, and then move on to Betty's background, the author's own story, and then back to the two of them as a family unit (ok, three, dog people get what's called a lagniappe here). Now that I've re-hashed the plot as much as I care to, where to begin?
Being roughly the same age as George, I came from the northeast, an area that was booming rather than dying; last time I returned to the area, I had a bit of trouble relating to all the growth. Meanwhile, he paints an evocative portrait of a dying area of the rural Midwest, starting with his family's business closing down to a beautiful church that's due to become a crafts market for lack of membership. And then there are the trees ... they're dying, too. If this sounds gloomy, it is. But, that's redeemed by the portrayal of the people that made the area, whom he tries hard to ensure aren't forgotten.
Remember I said his background was similar, yet different? I once asked my grandmother why they never had any more kids, and was told, "Because we couldn't afford them." Granted, Betty would've been around 40 when George was born, but we never hear anything about his being an only child specifically; in all his soul-searching need for frankness, I felt any comment on that was lacking. Much later, we learn that frankness wasn't big on his parents' agenda, so the abridged biography George presents, which seemed a bit detached, was the only way he could make sense of who his parents really were. His father was a more complex figure, who realized his boy was ... different, not in denial that George was gay in a burn-in-hell-for-eternity sense, but that he couldn't accept that by the 1980's and after, it was actually possible for gays to lead other-than-tragic lives. Near the end, George asks his mother whether she and his father ever discussed his gayness, getting back a "No, never." Betty admits she knew, but "thought you'd grow out of it."
Speaking of tragic lives, George's goes there, starting with Betty forcing him to try out for the high school football team, moving onto his experiences at college (close enough to home to cause me to squirm), and then the move to NYC, with parties and drugs instead of any sort of relationship. After all, his parents would never accept a nice, attractive guy as "family", so why bother? A good therapist might have saved (resolved) that, but his past was what it was. He never had a relationship, because he never felt entitled to one, just sex. Here's hoping that the many readers who think he's a great guy can finally get through to him that ... well ... he is. One of my favorite scenes in the book happens when the guy who (seemingly) lead George on earlier, returns to his life later, hinting at a reunion when he needs someone, and George is savvy enough to see that for what it is.
A note on the audio narration, which cinches the fifth star for the story. George ought to be grateful every day that Jeff Woodman agreed to take on the project, because he totally nailed the voices, especially George's father I thought.
Oh yes, in case anyone's concerned about sexual content, there really isn't any - I'd say it's a PG-13 story in that regard. Hardest part for me was the section on the many AIDS deaths among his crowd, which I found ... intense, but even after the section I still didn't want to the story to end. If you're reading these reviews because you're considering it, but not sure if you'll like it, you probably will.