Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Book Review: In Her Wake
I just finished reading a wonderful book called In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide, by Nancy Rappaport.
I get sent a lot of books to review, several per week, but who has the time to read them all, much less review them? And I have to say when I read the rather depressing title, I was not highly motivated, especially since my own mother committed suicide when I was 20. I wasn't thrilled about the prospect of reliving that painful time in my life. But once I cracked the book open I realized that this was not a depressing memoir, but a fine work of literature with the flair and suspense of a mystery novel.
Here is the book's opening sentence: "The day my mother killed herself, she had just finished her house on Marlborough Street for the anticipated return of her children after a fierce custody battle with my father." That hooked me and kept me reading for the next 282 pages.
We learn much about families and how they are torn asunder by divorce, and how divorce, in this case, led to tragedy. The author did a huge amount of research, finding journals and letters and even an unpublished novel written by her mother, and we read excerpts that give us an astonishing sense of being in the mind of a woman spiraling toward suicide. This was a remarkably intelligent and accomplished person who lived in a heady social circle including the top political and economic figures in Boston in the 1950s. Her husband, Jerome Rappaport, was the real estate developer who razed Boston's storied West End and built high rise condos in its place. Having done my residency at Mass General, which is adjacent to the old West End (now the Charles River Park development), I had heard many stories about the controversial urban renewal project and was therefore particularly fascinated to meet the so-called "villain" behind the project. Suffice it to say that the reality of the project was much more nuanced than the popular legend.
Equally fascinating are Rappaport's colorful descriptions of marital and family life in the 50s and 60s. We read about spouse-swapping (visions of Updike), about a gigantic blended family of 11 children piling into a station wagon for a cross-country trip (visions of Nabokov, minus the pedophilia), and vicious fights between an estranged husband and wife, with small children watching, cringingly, from the sidelines.
There's really so much more to this book than I would have predicted. I highly recommend it.
The specs: In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide, Nancy Rappaport, New York: Basic Books, 2009, web site http://www.inherwake.com/.