Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Review: Bettyville by George Hodgman

As people age, they often need more care, especially if they want to continue to live in their own home. Communities and families used to rally around the elderly. Now those homely, caring communities are dying and families are spread all over the country. Options are limited for the aging. There's assisted living, home care, bringing an elderly relative into your own home, or moving in with them. None of the options are easy. For George Hodgman, the right answer for his mother was for her only son to move back from New York City to tiny Paris, Missouri to take care of the once indomitable but now failing Betty.

As he cares for his mother, Hodgman tells of the life she lived, capturing the disappearing way of life in their small town. He interweaves his own recollections of the past in with hers, writing honestly of his feeling of being different, his long unacknowledged homosexuality, his drug addiction, and the low self worth he camouflages with humor. The Betty that Hodgman is caring for is very frequently not the Betty he remembers from his childhood. That younger Betty was vibrant and active and a vital part of her community. The Betty of ninety plus years is still colorful and can be a pistol, but she is also sad and stubborn as those things that once defined her become too hard for her anymore. Hodgman captures perfectly the repetitive arguments about seemingly petty things that pepper life with an aged parent and the poignancy of these small battles over things like wanting to wear tatty sandals everyday because that is one area in which the elderly Betty can still exercise some control.

Reflecting on his own life and what he is or is not losing by choosing to stay with Betty, Hodgman has the chance to reflect on his relationship with parents and make an exploration into himself, who he has been, and who he has fought to become. As a gay man growing up in a small town, he knew he was different and he long felt like a disappointment to his parents. Uncomfortable with his sexuality, he was as silent on the subject as they were. He learned to be self-effacing in a funny way as a way to combat his social awkwardness and because he didn't necessarily like who he was. And while it would have been easy to blame his parents for this because of their upbringing and beliefs, he doesn't do that. In fact, this beautiful memoir shows a lot of love, undemonstrative perhaps, but love nonetheless.

The narrative is made up of non-linear remembrances as he returns to different times in Betty's or his own past, weaving them adroitly amongst the present of taking care of Betty. The memoir is very personal in that he opens up his own truest self in it but it is also universal and recognizable for anyone who has cared for an elderly relative, felt different, struggled with meeting people, etc. Hodgman drops some very entertaining and witty bits into the book, which mitigates some of the heartbreaking truths about getting old. The respect he shows his mother even as she drives him round the bend is lovely and moving. His revelations about himself are candid and there's a strong vein of nostalgia, even though he didn't, and still doesn't always, find complete acceptance for who he is in the town or in his extended family. An exquisite tale of family ties, love, and aging, this is a wonderful and personal journey back home, back to the mother he loves and we are lucky to be along for the ride.

Thanks to the folks at Bookreporter.com for running the contest I won and for sending me this book as my prize.


  1. I'm receiving this for a book discussion on Goodreads. I signed up for it after reading the synopsis, which appeals to me. I'm happy to see that it's getting good reviews, I'm excited to read it!

  2. I read an article about this book in the New York Times. I think it made it sound like the author was quite funny in the book, or that he has a very good sense of humor. Bettyville, I like the title.


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