One of the great virtues of e-books is being able to download volumes en masse so there's always something new to read on your device. Sometimes, you find a book on there and you have no idea where it came from. Don't Tell Anyone by Laurie Boris was just such a book-- an unexpected surprise one afternoon when I was out of fresh reading material.
It was also an unexpected pleasure. I read the entire book in one sitting. As I read, I would pause now and then, wracking my brains, trying to remember when I'd purchased it. Surely it must be a professionally published and edited work? It was so good-- such a good story, so well-written, so cleanly formatted. I must've bought it.
I finally went back through my emails and, to my delight, found that Ms. Boris is an indie author, which meant that I could post my review of this book on Blue House Review. And, of course, this is the great reward of reading indie authors-- confirming that quality work is out there. It's just a matter of finding it.
Don't Tell Anyone made me laugh out loud when I wasn't wincing in sympathy. As the description says, this book centers around the Tragers, a family living in New England. Estelle Trager is an almost stereotypical Jewish mother, with the fretting and the nagging and the Yiddish-- I don't mean that in a disparaging or derogatory way. As someone who grew up with my very Mexican grandmother, those stereotypes exist for a reason. Or maybe all fretting, nagging grandmothers are pretty much the same, whether they mutter in Yiddish or English, Spanglish or Swahili. Hence, I was laughing and wincing in sympathy-- sometimes both at the same time. Hearing Estelle badger her adult children from everything from the cost of eating out, to the proper method of reheating a dish of lasagna, to getting with the baby-makin'-- all were incidents I found totally realistic.
While the story is occasionally told from Estelle's point of view, the other person we spend the most time with is Liza Trager. Liza is the hub character, a point of connection for everyone else in the story: Estelle's daughter-in-law, Adam's wife, Charles' ex-lover and Cara Miller's BFF. Adam and Charles, it should be noted, are the brothers Trager. Liza was with Charles first, in their college days. But Charles is gay and she moved on to Adam. The dynamics between Liza, Adam and Charles is a major thread throughout the story as it relates to how they deal with Estelle's illness. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could've devolved quickly into soapy melodrama, but Boris infuses the situation with just the right touch of subtlety and humor.
Liza is as unlike Estelle as it's possible to be-- West Coast vs. East Coast, Old Age vs. New Age, Baby Boomer vs. Millennial. Estelle is Frank Sinatra, AquaNet and Wonder Bread. She did not go to college but got married young, had her children young. Her marriage to the late Mr. Trager was not satisfying, but she stuck it out with him because that's what women did in those days. Liza is Talking Heads, all-organic, crunchy granola, green tea and no makeup. At age thirty-two or -three, she seems, in some ways, much younger, more naive than Estelle must have been at that age, getting dressed up for drunken costume party shenanigans like she's still a kid. In other ways, Estelle seems like the younger of the two, in that way that elders in need of care have a tendency to regress. Liza went to college as a matter of course, and now, in her thirties, she has returned to school to pursue a career change-- because what Millennial puts up with work that's not satisfying? Also, she and Adam aren't ready for kids at the beginning of the book, though circumstances cause them to reexamine their stance.
The main concern of this tale, you see, is how the family as a whole comes together, falls apart, and then comes back together to deal with Estelle's failing health. She has breast cancer, which killed both her mother and her grandmother before her. Estelle found a lump in her breast five years ago, but both terror and resignation caused her to keep mum on the subject. The family finds out when she lands in the emergency room, presumably because she collapsed, and has a nasty case of pneumonia in the bargain.
So begins Liza and Adam's ordeal to care for an ailing parent. I say it is chiefly Liza and Adam's problem, as they are the ones that have Estelle live with them when she is released from her first stint in the hospital, and then she moves in permanently when she is no longer able to care for herself. Charles, to his credit, is an everlasting and nurturing presence.
Boris explores how dealing with Estelle, as dealing with any such hardship, brings out both the best and the worst in these characters. Adam's temper becomes explosive-- he is understandably enraged that his mother kept her illness a secret for so long, that she lied to them. He gets upset when she refuses to care for herself. (Ask any caregiver-- there is nothing more infuriating than trying to care for someone who will not care for themselves.) Estelle doesn't want to quit smoking, she doesn't want to undergo treatment, and she won't allow her doctors to share her medical information with the family. Adam takes his temper out on Liza and Charles, driving them together, then he gets angry when he feels like they're ganging up on him.
Liza, meanwhile, is doing everything she can to be a dutiful daughter-in-law, to care for someone who has no one else. Charles, who retains his privacy and distance, visits regularly, and is generally always calm and cheerful. He is a natural charmer-- everyone who meets him instantly likes him. And he has extensive experience dealing with divas of a certain age, as he is a producer of some sort for a View-esque TV show, which largely entails him keeping said divas happy and preventing cat fights from breaking out. At a glance, it would seem that Charles is the one Trager who manages to hang on to his equilibrium throughout the book. Yet, he seems to wrestle quietly with his own demons-- mainly doubt and insecurity. His personal life is in a deadlock-- his married lover is a closeted politician. More importantly, he seems to be looking rather wistfully at Liza. If he ever had a straight relationship, he would have wanted it to be with her. Did he make a mistake in rejecting her all those years ago?
Despite their varied responses, Adam, Liza and Charles are all forced to confront their own frailties, their own mortality. Adam and Liza try to get pregnant. Charles pushes for commitment from his lover. Trying to juggle their own lives with Estelle's demanding needs and overbearing personality takes its toll. Old rivalries come to the fore, and we find that jealousy between the brothers is not limited to their feelings on Liza. There is a long-standing grudge where Mother's affections are concerned (it does seem that Estelle favors Charles).
Perhaps the greatest burden, however, is placed on Liza when Estelle asks her, from the very beginning, to kill her before her illness gets too bad.
At first, Liza thinks it's just the medication talking. But as Estelle repeatedly and emphatically repeats her request, Liza finds herself seriously considering it.
This book manages to wrestle with weighty subjects with wonderful aplomb. We ask ourselves, what would we do in Liza's shoes? In Estelle's? It's easy to dismiss Adam as being a bit of a jerk, but when your mother is dying and won't talk to you about it, how good of a mood do you think you'd be in?
Here is another point where I could relate so well to this book. Five years ago, at the age of twenty-eight, my husband went into renal failure and had to go on dialysis. I understand what it means to become a caregiver at an untimely age (if there is such a thing as a timely age). Like Liza, I was a working adult and pursuing a degree. Boris captures it all: the exhaustion, the desperation, the feeling of disconnectedness, the mood swings. One minute, you're buoyed at the kindness of others; the next, you're a crumpled heap of depression because you can't figure out dinner. Everything takes on this surreal quality, as if your life has been suspended. Your state of being becomes this constant state of vigilance and emergency-- is your loved one eating the right thing? Are they eating at all? Are they losing weight? Are they comfortable? Are they breathing? Are they running a fever? Oh, God, they're running a fever. Better rush them to the ER.
It's hard to imagine unless you've been there, but Boris paints a painfully vivid portrait of these circumstances. I felt like all these characters were real people, people I might know. She brings such sensitivity and compassion to them. She doesn't judge them or their decisions. I loved that.
I particularly enjoyed Cara, Adam and Liza's neighbor, who is a home care nurse. Cara is a wonderful source of support for the Tragers, particularly Liza and Estelle. As with the rest of the caregiver situation, Boris perfectly nailed the importance that such healthcare providers have on the lives of their patients, as well as the lives of their patients' families. Cara brings that matter-of-factness that healthcare workers develop in working with the chronically and/or terminally ill. For example, Cara knows that one of her patients has a hypodermic needle with a lethal dose of morphine squirreled away in his house. She knows where it is, and is prepared to use it if it ever becomes necessary. She procures marijuana for Estelle for pain and nausea.
When you work in a world that straddles the line between life and death, morals and legality become negligible. Again, there is that sense that normal life has been suspended. All the rules you thought you knew simply don't apply anymore.
I don't have enough applause for this book, which, for me, touches a subject so close to home. I know others may find the subject of cancer and end-of-life care too tough. But for those of us who have already survived it, I'd say it's just right.
(reviewed the day of purchase)