I recommend this short but moving first novel by Rachel Khong about a woman caring for her father with Alzheimer’s. This is a prospect I find absolutely terrifying, whether for my parents and for myself. It seems to me that almost any physical ailment would be less scary than gradually losing one’s mind, knowing that it’s happening but being powerless to stop it. And yet this novel isn’t as devastating as you might think; rather it’s clever, insightful, and quietly emotional.
Thirty-year-old Ruth visits her parents at Christmas-time after learning of her father’s diagnosis – and because her fiancé recently left her. Her relationship with her parents is complicated at best, but when her mother asks her to stay for a year, she feels she can’t say no.
This story is about Alzheimer’s but it’s also about a family coming together. While I sympathized with Ruth, some of her issues seemed particularly “millennial”. Recovering from a broken engagement with the person you just gave years of your life to? I’ve been there. Thirty and a college drop-out with no career goals, and the ability to move home with no planning at all — that was a stretch for me. Still, I didn’t have to be Ruth to feel for her. I particularly shared Ruth’s fear that when I’m needed, I won’t be good enough, or unselfish enough.
It’s all so messed up. I think what it is, is that when I was young, my mother was her best version of herself. And here I am, now, a shitty grown-up, and messing it all up, and a disappointment. What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers. That the reasons we can care for one another can have nothing to do with the person cared for. That it has only to do with who we were around that person – what we felt about that person.
Despite its serious subject, Khong’s writing brings a lighter side to this story. It’s sort of stream-of-consciousness, and some of it is so random, it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it will have you seeing the world in a slightly different light.
Which is not to say that the Alzheimer’s part takes a back seat. It’s ever-present in the way Ruth constantly seeks new ways to prolong her father’s memories and identity, from Ruth’s mother being afraid to cook with aluminum pans to Ruth searching for ways to cook jellyfish. Being forced to watch someone you love change in small ways every day has to be awful. And at the same time, Ruth and her brother have to confront the cracks in their family structure in order to properly care for their father, and Ruth is forced to confront how memories shape her own reality.
I really appreciated Ruth’s relationship with her brother, and the reality that siblings often have very different experiences (and therefore, different relationships) with their parents. I was also quite moved by Ruth’s reactions to her break-up, having gone through something pretty similar. Ruth finds that the end of her relationship calls into question everything she’d done in the years spent with him. This line particularly struck me, as it paralleled my own experience:
I knew it started being over with Joel when I’d open a bottle of wine and he wouldn’t drink it. Sharing things is how things get started, and not sharing things is how they end.
The novel is written in diary form, which is clearly a conscious choice as Khong parallels Ruth’s diary with the diaries her father kept when she was a little girl. His diaries are observations of the silly and endearing things Ruth did as a child, and through them you see not only his love for his daughter, but also the similar quirkiness they both share (especially their attention to words, which I loved). While I often find books written as diaries problematic, it’s workable here as this is Ruth’s story of a year spent at home, both her observations and her personal growth. Although I did have some issues with the diary format, and a jarring use of second person (I see why she does it, but found it disruptive).
There’s a slow beauty to this story that will have you thinking about it much longer than it takes to actually read it. The book is all the more compelling because it’s a situation many of us could very well have to face some day.
Although I didn’t find a lot of biographical information, Khong is Chinese-American, from Southern California, and she was a writer and editor of food magazine Lucky Peach. This is her first novel. You can find out more about how she wrote this book in this interview.
Thanks to NetGalley and publisher Henry Holt & Co. for sharing this novel, which was published July 11, 2017.