Richard Russo’s memoir “Elsewhere,” about his life with his mother, Jean, is well-written beautiful, witty and empathetic. He has written nine works of fiction, and this non-fiction book feels like his best work yet.
He writes in such a way that he answers readers’ questions before they know they have a question. After you finish “Elsewhere,” you feel like you have a complete story about Russo, his mother and family.
The great and terrible beauty of the book comes from Russo’s life with his mother and father in Gloversville, his hometown.
When Russo was a boy in the 1950s, his father, a World War II veteran tormented by gambling, left the family. With the help of her parents, Jean Russo created a rich, independent life for her and her son.
Author: Richard Russo
Published by: Knopf, 256 pages
How much: $25.95
Russo adored and appreciated his mother and their congenial life in Gloversville. She worked hard as a parent. However, she had great mood swings and disliked Gloversville, which she saw as backward and inhabited by automatons working in the leather tanneries.
After high school, Russo was accepted at Arizona State University. He bought a car for the trip west and thought his mother would object. “The reason she didn’t,” he writes with mordant wit, was “Because she was going with me.”
The account of the trip alternately raises nail-biting anxiety for the inexperienced travelers and laughter at incidents along the way. For example, at one point, Russo’s mother had so much trouble maneuvering the car that she “totaled a saguaro cactus.”
Moving west seems good for her. She gets a job, learns to drive and remarries. As Russo becomes a professor and then a novelist, as he meets his wife, Barbara, and starts a life and family with her, his mother suffers reversals of fortunes. Her marriage ends, she returns to Gloversville because of homesickness, and her anxieties increase. Whether she is living with the family or living nearby, she becomes so needy that the family coins a tension-relieving joke that they could never go “anywhere for longer than it took for her milk to spoil.”
Although she struggles with an inability to be happy — not depression but anxiety and dissatisfaction — what finally overcomes her is congestive heart failure. Writing the book helps Russo understand his mother’s life and how it might have been more rewarding for her.
He writes about his mother, his wife, his daughters, grandparents and other family members with love and respect. After his mother died, he is able to reflect and realize why she was dependent and anxious. The realization does not cause contempt; he loves her for her outsized combination of strengths and weaknesses.
“Elsewhere” also treats Gloversville with respect. Russo eloquently explains the economic forces that have diminished the place and the toll that working with leather takes on people. And he recognizes and respects how growing up there shaped his life.
Toward the end, an experience that Russo’s elder daughter has helps him better understand his mother. He appreciates how the each generation learns from and supports the next, whether it is time spent with his cousin Greg, his grandparents or his wife and daughters.
Many adult children are now caring for ailing parents or children who are navigating difficult emotional or job-related challenges.
“Elsewhere” is not a how-to for middle-aged men and women balancing their lives with those of their parents and children. But the wit, grace and insight that Russo shares from his experience may help others in similar situations survive and make things better for all.