- Listening Length: 7 hours and 32 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Publisher: Random House Audio
- Release Date: October 30, 2012
- Source: Library
Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Russo follows eight tremendous works of fiction with a truly rewarding memoir of his life in Elsewhere. Fans of his novels will recognize his hometown of Gloversville, NY, a town once known for producing quality leather products. By the time Russo was a young child, the town was reduced to poverty, many of the residents sick with illnesses caused by working in the glovery.
During Russo’s childhood, Gloversville was a close-knit community, the residents bonding together in poverty. That said, Russo waited decades to write about his hometown, only inspired after he was invited to participate in Granta’s “going home” issue.
…this isn’t a story I tried to remember; it’s one I’d have given a good deal to forget. But despite my impressive amnesiac gifts, it refused to be forgotten, and I hope that that’s because it’s true in the ways that matter most.
As a young adult, Russo and his mother, Jean, live in an apartment in the upper level of his grandparents home. Ready to flee the life they were dealt due to Russo’s compulsive-gambling father, Jean joins Russo when he drives across the country to attend school at University of Arizona. He doesn’t know this at the time, but this leap of faith is just the beginning of a host of moves that he and his mother take. Upon arrival, Russo assumes his mother has found employment with General Electric, the company Jean had worked for for years, a job at which she was paid quite the healthy salary. Unfortunately this is not the case and instead Jean must start from scratch with her job search. With each position she finds, rather than celebrating the opportunity she compares each job with her role at GE. The stress of the move and the hunt for employment and an acceptable apartment unleashes in Jean what Russo and his family refereed to as “nerves.” She relies entirely on Russo (who she affectionately refers to as “Ricko-Mio”) for everything, from running her to the grocery store to a host of a number of errands.
When Russo obtains his Ph.D. in English and opts to move from Phoenix, leaving his mother behind. He marries and has children and the brief stint of independence from his mother ends and she follows him back across the country, ultimately ending in Maine. It was as if she thought of them as one individual, Russo comments, “one entity, oddly cleaved by time and gender, like fraternal twins somehow born twenty-five years apart, destined in some strange way to share a common destiny.”
Throughout these numerous moves, Jean’s spells of “nerves” continue. Thankfully, Russo marries an incredibly patient and understanding wife, Barbara, who unfortunately comes to realize that every shift in their life must take into account the well-being and status of her mother-in-law. Jean’s condition actually worsens, her doctor ultimately prescribing her a host of medications, including Valium and Phenobarbital. To make matters worse, Jean holds back medications when she thinks she’s doing well, then compensating with multiple doses when her nerves act up. Unfortunately, it isn’t until years later, after she passes, that Russo really understands the depth to her illness. It wasn’t simply a case of nerves, but instead an undiagnosed case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Throughout the novel, one can’t help but get frustrated with Russo’s mother and the trials and tribulations she forces upon her son. That said, a truly profound turning point comes upon and after her death when Russo realizes he may have ignored warning signs that would have allowed her to be treated for her illness.
At the beginning of this memoir, Russo indicates:
What follows in this memoir – I don’t know what else to call it – is a story of intersections: of place and time, of private and public, of linked destinies and flawed devotion. It’s more my mother’s story than mine, but it’s mine, too, because until just a few years ago she was seldom absent from my life.
These two lines perfectly capture the true essence of this memoir. After his mother’s death, Russo still couldn’t comprehend what an impact he had on his mother’s life. Even as an adult he feels he was the root of her pain:
From the time I was a boy I understood that my mother’s health, her well-being, was in my hands. How often over the years did she credit me, or my proximity, with restoring her to health? My rock, as she was so fond of saying, always there when she needed me most. My own experience, however, had yielded a different truth — that I could easily make things worse, but never better.
The moment in which Russo finally realizes how truly integral and valuable to his mother’s life is truly heart-wrenching and beautiful.This side of Russo: completely honest, almost painfully so, gives a whole new depth to my view of him as a writer. Russo doesn’t hold back in admitting how much his mother influenced his future and success as a writer:
Reading was not a duty but a reward….From her 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.
I’ve been a fan of Russo’s writing for years. Listening to him narrate his own memoir allowed me to see a completely new, almost naive, side to this truly talented writer. His narration is truly amazing, while it’s a given that an author should narrate his/her memoir that is not always the case. That said, I don’t believe this book would have had such a strong impact on me had it been read anyone other than Russo. Listening to this memoir has inspired me to go back an reread his fiction, perhaps viewing his fiction from new eyes, seeing the author in a completely new light. Undoubtedly, this will be one of my favorite memoirs of the year. Highly, highly recommended.