MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The writer behind popular and critically acclaimed novels such as "Nobody's Fool" and "Empire Falls" is out with a memoir. Richard Russo's new book is called "Elsewhere," and it tells the story of his mother and how she shaped him as a writer. Reviewer Michael Schaub says it's a tough read emotionally, and that's a good thing.
MICHAEL SCHAUB, BYLINE: Toward the end of Richard Russo's new book, the author sits with his mother in her home. She's just been diagnosed with dementia after years of struggling with an undiagnosed mental illness, which her family, in the 1950s and '60s, dismissed as nerves. Russo says, I just wish you could be happy, Mom. His mother responds, I used to be. I know you don't believe that, but I was. It's the most utterly melancholy moment in a memoir full of them, a book in search of a happy ending that will never come. There are instances of joy in "Elsewhere," but not many, and they're tempered by the knowledge that sometimes things just don't get better.
This story is a tragedy, and it is as unrelentingly sad as it is beautiful. "Elsewhere" chronicles Russo's relationship with his mother from his childhood in the decaying mill town of Gloversville, New York, to her death decades later. The book is less a memoir than, in Russo's words, a story of intersections of place and time, of private and public, of linked destinies and flawed devotion. Russo writes in the same plainspoken voice that he's used in his critically acclaimed novels. He loves his mother dearly, but her constant obsessive-compulsive behavior has long strained his relationship with his own young family.
Betraying some of the anger he felt toward his mother's near suffocating presence in his life, he admits, there were times I seriously considered wringing her neck. Russo's intellectual and emotional honesty are remarkable, especially in the memoir's final pages. Given a chance to absolve himself, he hands down an indictment instead. Given a chance to indulge in a feel-good kind of hope, he rejects it. The story ends where it has to, in a place utterly devoid of easy redemption. If "Elsewhere" sounds bleak, that's because it is. But it's also one of the most honest, moving American memoirs in years.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
That's critic Michael Schaub, who writes for nprbooks.org. He reviewed Richard Russo's new memoir, "Elsewhere." You can find more book reviews, interviews and recommendations at our website.