Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads):  
The past is not past for Katharine Merrill. Even after two decades of volatile marriage, Katharine still believes she can have the life that she felt promised to her by those first exhilarating days with her husband, Frederick. For two months, just before Frederick left to fight in World War II, Katharine received his total attentiveness, his limitless charms, his astonishing range of intellect and wit. Over the years, however, as Frederick’s behavior and moods have darkened, Katharine has covered for him, trying to rein in his great manic passions and bridge his deep wells of sadness: an unending project of keeping up appearances and hoping for the best. But the project is failing. Increasingly, Frederick’s erratic behavior, amplified by alcohol, distresses Katharine and their four daughters and gives his friends and family cause to worry for his sanity. When, in the summer of 1962, a cocktail party ends with her husband in handcuffs, Katharine makes a fateful decision: She commits Frederick to Mayflower Home, America’s most revered mental asylum.  There, on the grounds of the opulent hospital populated by great poets, intellectuals, and madmen, Frederick tries to transform his incarceration into a creative exercise, to take each meaningless passing moment and find the art within it. But as he lies on his room’s single mattress, Frederick wonders how he ever managed to be all that he once was: a father, a husband, a business executive. Under the faltering guidance of a self-obsessed psychiatrist, Frederick and his fellow patients must try to navigate their way through a gray zone of depression, addiction, and insanity.
Meanwhile, as she struggles to raise four young daughters, Katharine tries to find her way back to Frederick through her own ambiguities, delusions, and the damages done by her rose-colored belief in a life she no longer lives.

Inspired by elements of the lives of the author’s grandparents, this haunting love story shifts through time and reaches across generations. Along the way, Stefan Merrill Block stunningly illuminates an age-old truth: even if one’s daily life appears ordinary, one can still wage a silent, secret, extraordinary war.

And here's what I thought:   This is a beautifully written story.  It's not a light story by any means, but I found it to be an interesting read.  As you can see from the above summary, the book is mostly about two people, Frederick and Katharine, whose relationship is tested by Frederick's apparent mental illness.  Throughout the story, there are shifting viewpoints of both of these people, as well as their grandson, who tells about his mother, and grandmother (his grandmother is Katharine). 

Because we experience the story through different viewpoints, most notably those of Frederick and Katharine, we get two different perspectives of events.   I found Frederick's story to be particularly fascinating, not only because of his observations of his time spent at Mayflower Home, but also because of the way he interpreted events completely differently than Katharine remembered them.   His mental illness skews things just enough that you aren't always sure that he's a reliable narrator.   We get his perspective as an insider, but we also see Katharine, on the outside, struggling with her decision, and trying to figure out what to do next (not just about Frederick, but about their daughters).

Oddly, enough, I had just finished a book titled "America's Care of the Mentally Ill: a Photographic History," which explained the trends of care for patients, and how asylums not only were designed archicturally to fit with this, but how the care, itself, changed over the decades.  When I started reading about Frederick at Mayflower Home, it all came together (and I had just happened to pick up this book next to read, as it turned out).     I found this a compelling book, and while it wasn't the happiest of stories, I found it to be thought-provoking. 

Here's an example of some of the beautiful writing that caught my attention (p. 5):  "Katharine reminds herself that forgotten notions can sometimes be found where they were first conjured, and crosses halfway back to the porch.  Just before the screen door, Katharine remembers her determination, and its actual object.  The actual object is lodged like a repressed memory, like a Freudian scene of childhood trauma, behind and within all the clutter of the years, somewhere deep inside the attic.  The actual object she has not held for a decade or more, but she often still finds it holding her."

First sentences:   There is the house in the wildeness.  The house, Echo Cottage, with the lake spread before it, a quivering lattice of light in the late afternoon.  Beneath the mossy portico, a placard displays Echo's flaking name.

Thoughts on the cover:  Eye-catching and captures both the tone and the story.  I like the way it seems like the storm is peeling back, almost as if there is something light behind it --- but if it continues to be peeled, it will divide the couple.


Jo K said...

It is interesting to here two sides of the same story. Great review!

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Alexis @ Reflections of a Bookaholic said...

Oh! This sounds so fantastic. I definitely want to read this one. I'm adding it to my wishlist at this moment. Thanks for the great review.

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