Thursday, July 1, 2010

a review of "The Center of The Universe" [48]

The Center of The Universe by Nancy Bachrach
(Vintage Books, ISBN 978-0-307-45541-3)

Have I mentioned that I have sworn off memoirs?
I know many people love them but I tend to find them depressing and whiny and self indulgent. Did I mention depressing?

But then, something comes along that makes me admit I can sometimes be wrong. This is the book that puts the "not always" in Not Always.Why, if I have sworn off memoirs did I even pick this up to read? Well, one of the descriptions called it "darkly humorous" and the only thing better in my book than funny is dark and funny. That description hits this book on the head. Yes, there is death and drugs and sexual abuse and mental illness in this book. Lots of mental illness.
And it is laugh-out loud funny!

As the story begins and Nancy starts her recount of the story of her family, especially her mother, it is the 80's and Nancy is in France, heading an ad campaign to get the French to buy deodorant. She feels it is a hopeless job.
"...someone very high up at bar soap headquarters, someone with a good nose but a rarely used passport, smells an untapped market for deodorants over here, and although I can imagine the logic that led to this conclusion (and my relocation), the person who reached it hadn't had to sit through forty focus groups in unventilated conference rooms in the provinces." is, what she calls, the "Stink-o conundrum".

Then she gets the call that her father Mort is dead, her mother in a coma and expected to die, apparently of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning on their boat. See, her father, did all his own maintenance on the broken down vessel. He considered himself a great handyman, a self proclaimed Mr. Fix-It, but was one with no real ability t fix things, try as he might. Her mother? Well, her mother was crazy.
"Although I think it all the time, crazy is not a word my family says out loud, not even to one another. "Crazy" is our secret."
Nancy's life, that of her father and her two siblings all revolved around her mother Lola, her spells, her attacks, her bizarre behavior, her periodic commitments to mental institutions and electric shock treatments. She is very smart, very glamorous, very theatrical and not very in touch with reality.
"I was dreaming,” the story begins.
She waits until everyone is paying attention. Mort turns off the radio.
“I am the center of the universe,” she says, looking at each of us in turn, making sure we appreciate the significance. “And everyone else is a star revolving around me.”
This is a confession. A revelation. A pronouncement. This is the way of the world.
She is Norma Desmond, descending the staircase in Sunset Boulevard, eyes wide and frozen, getting ready for her close-up. She is Salome, stripping the veil off the face of the cosmos. She is my mother, Lola Hornstein.
And she is crazy."
As Nancy flies home, their father is dead, their mother barely clinging to life, and the three siblings, a psychologist, an emergency-room doctor and the third, Nancy, an advertising copywriter, gather for what everyone assumes will be a double funeral. No one survives that much exposure to CO2 all the doctors say..and if she could possibly live, all the doctors are totally sure say she will be severely brain damaged. Its seems once again inthe life of this family, the doctor is not always right. The totally unexpected happens. Lola wakes up and while she will face a number of severe issues in her recovery, she is 'cured' of her mental illness. It is a recovery the doctors say "defies medical explanation." Granted, it is a different Lola that come backs to them.
"She won't be herself, Dr. Greely warns me over the phone. Maybe that's good news, I can't help thinking, torn between my blind love for the unknown, new Lola and my practical fear of the old one."
This story is full of serious stuff, which in lesser hands could have been the material for one more depressing memoir. There is a history of mental illness in her mother's family, seemingly her mother was the victim of sexual abuse as a child and the recipient of years of medical treatment that offered little help. But in the very skillful hands of Nancy Bachrach, it is anything but. Rather it is funny, very funny and poignant and sweet and a delight to read.
To those who enjoy memoirs, I think you will love this one...and to those of you who do not, I would still offer a strong recommendation.

I will leave you with the author own description of herself...
"Nancy Bachrach worked in advertising in New York and Paris, spinning hot air like cotton candy. Before that, she was a teaching assistant in the philosophy department at Brandeis University, where she was one chapter ahead of her class. She lives in New York City. This is her first book."
I certainly hope that it will not be her last.

My thanks to Kelley and Hall for a review copy of this book.


  1. This is one book I wanted to get from the library when it was first released, and then forgot about it Thanks for reminding me..sounds good.

  2. I'm a memoir junkie, so imagine my thrill to find a memoir that a memoir hater loves! I can't wait to read this now.

  3. Caite, I'm not much of a non-fiction reader in any case, but after my book group read several memoirs a couple of years ago, we all swore off them for a really long time. Same reasons as you. One of our group members said that she was sure it was therapeutic for the writer, but tiresome for the reader.

    However, after reading your review of this book, I'm going to seek it out. Sounds fun and if I take to it, I'll tell my group that they might want to reconsider the ban on memoirs. LOL

  4. This one is now on my long list of things to read. Thanks for the review!

  5. If it has to do with mental illness (memoir, ficton, nonfiction) it goes on my wishlist. I'm not sure why. Perhaps that says something about me.....nah, that would be too easy.

  6. this is the memoir for those that have abandoned memoirs...and love the dark humor.

    we will let Michele's fondness for mental illness go no with comment. ;-)

  7. Well, I'm a memoir junkie so this is definitely going on my list.

  8. I adore memoirs, so this is going on my list right now. Thanks so much for sharing!


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