New Yorker cartoonist Chast has drawn and written the story of her parents' aging. She looks honestly at the indignities of growing older and at the ways that watching her parents age makes her re-examine her feelings for them, her memories of a strained only childhood, and the changes that the inevitable decline causes, both for her and for Elizabeth and George. She doesn't shy away from the universal difficulties so many face as they age, physically, mentally, emotionally, but she also doesn't shy away from an examination of her own feelings about caring for elderly parents and the generally undiscussed aspects of doing. The fact that her parents' aging doesn't change the fact of her sometimes tough, sometimes contentious relationship with them (and specifically her mother) is also well on display. Combining comics and prose here often highlights the black humor involved in the end stages of life and the fact that if you didn't laugh, you'd cry many a time. She chronicles Elizabeth and George's reluctance to discuss death or to acknowledge their reduced abilities, their fierce attempt to hold onto their independence, and their eventual, unavoidable decline into dementia and physical frailty. It's tough subject matter indeed.
The memoir is honest, sometimes brutally honest in ways that feel intrusive. The photographs of her parents' apartment after they leave it for assisted living are unspeakably sad although Chast seems to be trying for a levity with them by highlighting the ancient and long discontinued products in them. Her frustration with her parents comes through the story loud and clear and I do appreciate that she hasn't turned them into undeserved saints by virtue of their deaths but sometimes it does feel as if she goes too far in revealing them in all of their truth. Although the exact situations she faces are hers and her parents' alone, the general feel of the memoir will certainly be relatable for many caring for their own parent or parents. I have to admit that I am not a fan of the graphic format, feeling pulled between pictures and words, never allowing me to fully engage in one or the other and this memoir hasn't changed my mind. For me, they do not compliment each other entirely, instead leaving me feeling that the exclusion of one or the other would allow the author to go deeper into the chosen medium rather than splitting the difference between the two. Then again, in such a difficult book, perhaps going deeper would have been a mistake that magnified the things I already had trouble with. I watched my mother experience much of what is portrayed here when she cared for my grandmother but I never doubted that there was a deep and abiding love between them no matter what, a feeling I didn't see enough evidence of in this. This is an unflinching look at the way we avoid the end of life, the reality and weight of it, and how we all finally do have to deal with it no matter how unpleasant it might be.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.