Saturday, August 08, 2009

Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

A friend, who knows me fairly well though she hasn't known me for very long, recommended I read this book. The fact that she felt it would resonate with me exemplifies how well she knows me.

This is the story of Helen and her relationship with her mother, and way that relationship has effected Helen in other aspects of her life.

The title comes from her father telling her that her mother is there, they just can't see all of her. Like the moon? asks Helen, we know it's there, but sometimes it's hidden.

The novel begins with Helen killing her mother and continues with her trying to figure out what to do next and remembering the events in her life that led her to her mother's death.

Her mother suffers from some form of mental illness though there is no indication that she was ever diagnosed or treated. Whatever her mother's problem, whether real or imagined, the result is that she's controlling and cruel. She does all she can to convince her daughter that no one could ever love her except for her. She expects her husband and child's world to revolve around her. She's weak outside of the home, but in complete control while inside.

The damage she inflicts on Helen is deep and lingering. Helen grows up, goes away to college, has a husband and children, all in her attempt to be normal, to have a life that didn't revolve around her mother. But eventually she loses all of that. She doesn't finish college, her marriage ends, and she returns to live in a home near her parents, supported by her father's money. Just as her mother wanted, she becomes her whole world.

This book is very well-written, hard to put down. Helen embarks on one shocking event after another, having no clue as to what she should do next. It paints what I would imagine to be, a very real picture of what goes through someone's mind when something so startling happens. Helen didn't perform a cold, calculated murder. Her actions were impulsive and she doesn't know what to do to remedy what's she's done. The characters are baffled by the events, not sure how one is supposed to behave following a murder.

I've only glanced at other reviews of this book, and noticed a lot of negative comments. I think that's because the book concerns a very harsh subject, a situation that is foreign to most people. I don't mean murder, we've all read plenty of murder stories, but rather the idea of a mentally disturbed mother. For some people, a relationship such as the one between Helen and her mother is too absurd to imagine. Oh, to be one of those people...

Despite being so engrossed in the story, there were times when I needed to set the book down and take a break because of the intensity of the story. There were moments that hit very close to home. Everyone says they have a "crazy" mother, but as I got older I realized that people have different definitions of crazy. Not everyone's mother belittles then and tries to destroy their self-confidence, not everyone's mother says mean hateful things to their children, or makes us stories to try to cause problems in their other relationships, or writes anonymous letters calling them whores. When I got older, I was surprised to learn that some people had mothers who actually provided emotional support and encouragement. At the age of 33, that still seems like a novel concept to me: a kind, caring mother.

Most of all though, I sympathized with Helen's attempts to get away. Hers failed. I find myself in that position, trying to escape and feeling like the world can come tumbling down with a crazy phone call, or -- because I had to quit answering my phone -- a crazy email. I find myself angry and wondering why I'm not allowed to live my own life, why I've had to spend so much of my life compensating for my mother's mental instability. Unlike Helen though, I have made the decision to never have a family out of fear of replicating the only example I had. Even though I know this story is fiction, Helen's failed attempt at having a family seems to validate my own beliefs.

My only issue with the book though was the ending. There was so much buildup and so much happening, then the book just ends. I felt like the story wasn't finished, that if anything, the real action had just started. I wanted to know what happened next, but the book was over.

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