Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Elsewhere by Richard Russo

One of the joys of reading a memoir by a favorite author is recognizing the life story behind the fiction. Gloversville, New York, once the capital of the glove-making industry, is now an economically depleted ghost town whose inhabitants battle unemployment and factory-induced illnesses. This is the town that appears in books such as Nobody's Fool and Empire Falls. This is the town in which Richard Russo grew up.

Russo's parents divorced when he was very young. Raised by his mother and grandparents, he developed a close relationship with his family. But the Russo family had a dark side: his mother was wracked by anxiety and what would later turn out to be obsessive compulsive disorder. She thought of Richard as "her rock," and she always needed to live close to him. She was wracked by self-doubts and inner turmoil. Living "elsewhere" was her only solution to escape the demons within. With age, her anxiety increased and panic attacks and unrealistic dreams became the norm.

Elsewhere is a painfully honest look at Russo's early and later life. It is a book about mental illness that is neither diagnosed nor treated appropriately.  Most important, this is the story of a son who remains a constant in his mother's life and for whom he attributes his gifts as a writer.

It was from my mother that I learned that 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. ( p. 156)

If you are a fan of Richard Russo and have read his works of fiction, Elsewhere will be especially appealing.  The writer's talent and resilience shine throughout this touching memoir.

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