Speak up, Memory!

By Edward Hardy / November / December 2004
June 14th, 2007

This Room Is Yours by Michael Stein (Permanent Press).

Michael Stein’s fourth novel, This Room is Yours, is a moving, quietly compelling book about Alzheimer’s disease, the shifting caretaking roles of children and parents, and the often fluid paths of memory.

Stein is a physician and professor of medicine at Brown, and in this brief but vivid novel we watch the continuing fallout as his narrator, an unnamed thirty-five-year-old high school English teacher with a young son, a wife, and an ailing lawn, brings his estranged mother from her home in New Jersey to Cherry Orchard, an assisted-living facility on Providence’s East Side.

The narrator’s mother is depressed, becoming continually more baffled by daily events, and suffering from memory lapses—an early sign Alzheimer’s—and the decision to place her at Cherry Orchard is one the narrator calls “monstrous and confusing.” The narrator was just thirteen when his father died, and the boy often felt abandoned and betrayed by his social worker mother, “a bossy, spirited, independent woman who lived in a state of disappointment,” he tells us.

Through the son’s Thursday-morning visits to Cherry Orchard we witness both his mother’s slow descent, as simple tasks like taking a shower and making conversation at dinner become increasingly fraught, and the narrator’s incremental shift from embittered son to forgiving caretaker. We see him reluctantly open to his mother’s side of their story, even as her memory erodes. Stein evokes this tightening family bond while we watch the narrator struggle to understand it.

The story emerges through sparkling, essay-like segments that, while running a basic chronological line, veer off on rewarding tangents. Particularly interesting are recurring “Reader’s Guide” sections, which Stein uses to fill in background about Alzheimer’s or to allow his narrator, who is ostensibly turning this material into a novel, to muse on the nature of storytelling and the tangled relationship between truth, memory, and fiction. These sections add a surprising resonance to a well-crafted narrative, one that captures the nuances embedded in the dilemmas that face both parents and their adult children when the roles they’ve always lived with begin to change.

Edward Hardy is the author of the novel Geyser Lifeand a visiting lecturer in the expository writing program.

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November / December 2004