Sunday, June 23, 2013

Review: Replacement Child by Judy L. Mandel

Imagine if you spent all of your life knowing that the only reason you were born is because your parents had lost a child, suddenly and tragically, long before you were even thought of. In fact, imagine that if your oldest sister hadn't died and your surviving sister hadn't been terribly injured, your parents would never have considered having a third child. Imagine that you've always been the replacement child, living in the shadow of a much loved and missed perfect older sister. Judy Mandel was that replacement child, conceived only in the wake of a plane crashing into her family's apartment which killed 7 year old Donna Mandel and badly burned 2 year old Linda Mandel and she tells her story in the memoir Replacement Child.

Three different narratives thread throughout this memoir. There is an account of the day leading up to and culminating in the crash that killed little Donna Mandel; there is the story of Judy Mandel's childhood in a family so marked by tragedy; and there's the present day (2005) account of Judy as an adult, mother, and writer tackling this very memoir. Each of the narratives are designed to show the devastating and lasting effects of the tragedy on the Mandel family and to help Judy understand how the death of one sister and the disfigurement of another years before her own birth shaped her experience and made her the person she is today.

The tale of Judy's childhood is a heartbreaking one of understandable but dysfunctional family dynamics. She was always unable to live up to Donna's memory, especially in her father's eyes and heart, and she was forever cognizant of her parents' very guarded love for her and their inability, due to fear, to let her experience everything in life she wanted to experience. She lived with and understood the family's focus on Linda and her frequent hospitalizations to try to ease pain and to make small repairs to the massive damage done to her by the fireball but Judy Mandel herself suffered the emotional hurts of being shunted to the side and never being talked about positively in a way that might have drawn attention to Linda's disfigurements, an unacknowledged victim of the crash as well.

Mandel weaves her need to write this story because of the looming impact of Donna's absence she always felt in her own life with the events of that terrible life-changing, family-destroying day. And this weaving together is interesting in the beginning and in her dawning understanding of its impact on her personality and relationships but towards the end of the memoir, Mandel seems to lose the thread and start repeating herself, which made the later portions tedious. Somehow, despite the telling of such a horrible story, there's also an emotional distance maintained, perhaps intentionally, but one which makes it a little difficult for the reader to connect with Judy and with the sadness and suffering that must have pervaded the family always and forever.  She tells the reader of her conclusions with regards to her family and marital relationships but doesn't always convincingly show how she reached them.  So although the premise of the memoir was interesting and compelling, the reading itself was, unfortunately, not nearly so.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.


  1. What a sad story.I couldn't imagine being a replacement child. Great post.

  2. When I first started reading your review, I thought, "What an imaginative premise for a novel" ... then realizing that it was a memoir ... It has to have been extremely difficult to write; I applaud the author for sharing her story.

  3. hmmm... I don't think my comment showed up ...

    Anyway, what I wrote was something like:

    When I first started reading, I thought, "What an interesting premise for a novel!" ... then I realized that it was a memoir. This must have been extremely difficult to write about, and I applaud the author for her efforts.


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