Reviews for Elsewhere

Booklist Reviews 2012 September #2
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Russo brings the same clear-eyed humanism that marks his fiction to this by turns funny and moving portrait of his high-strung mother and her never-ending quest to escape the provincial confines of their hometown of Gloversville, New York. All of her life, she clung to the notion that she was an independent woman, despite the fact that she couldn't drive, lived upstairs from her parents, and readily accepted their money to keep her household afloat. She finally escaped her deteriorating hometown, which went bust when the local tannery shut down, by moving to Arizona with her 18-year-old son when he left for college and following him across the country right up until her death. His comical litany of her long list of anxieties, from the smell of cooking oil to her fruitless quest for the perfect apartment, is a testament to his forbearance but also to his ability to make her such a vivid presence in these pages. Part of what makes this such a profound tribute to her is precisely because he sees her so clearly, flaws and all. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Prizewinning author Richard Russo's many fans will be lining up for his first nonfiction work, which has generated considerable prepublication buzz. Copyright 2012 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2012 December
A son's poignant memories

Novelist Richard Russo had no doubt that he should write a book about the close and emotionally complicated relationship he had with his mother. The question was, should he publish it?

“I had to write the book because after my mother’s death she was very much in my waking thoughts and haunting my dreams as well, which suggested to me there was some unfinished business,” Russo says during a call that reaches him at the apartment he and his wife Barbara own in Boston. Most of the year the couple lives in Camden, Maine. Russo travels frequently for book tours, lectures and his scriptwriting work, and he’s found that it’s much easier to fly out of Boston. In fact, the morning following our conversation, he will fly from Boston to Helsinki to speak at opening ceremonies for the U.S. State Department’s new library there.

“My mother’s story seemed important both in terms of the private, intimate mother-son story and in terms of its broader cultural and political context,” Russo says. “She was part of the World War II generation and what happened to her is very much an American story and a story about the changes that were taking place in America as she grew into her maturity. That’s why this book is so much about Gloversville.”

In a beautifully evocative prologue to Elsewhere: A Memoir, Russo tells us that, in its prime, the upstate New York town of Glovers­ville produced 90 percent of the dress gloves sold in the world. Russo’s mother and father grew up there, married young and separated when he was a little boy. By the time Russo was a teenager, most of the glove-making work had been shipped overseas and the toxic residues of processing leather were left for the dwindling local population to deal with. “By the time I graduated from high school in 1967,” Russo writes, “you could have strafed Main Street with an automatic weapon without endangering a soul.”

Russo’s mother, as the book’s title implies, had conflicting feelings about her hometown. “What she thought about Gloversville depended on whether she was there or elsewhere,” Russo says. “It was the central dilemma of her life and in some ways it has been the central dilemma of my artistic life as well. There is the actual physical place, which fills me at times with the visceral loathing that I learned from my mother. Then there’s the Gloversville that’s been transformed into Mohawk [1986], Empire Falls [2002 Pulitzer Prize winner] and Thomaston [Bridge of Sighs, 2007]. In all those places I am free to love the fictional avatars of Gloversville with my whole heart and whole soul, and my mother’s opinion of the place doesn’t enter into it because those places are drawn from my imagination.”

Much of Russo’s fiction has explored his relationship with his mostly absent father. “All those charming, feckless men that turn up in my novels—from Sam Hall in The Risk Pool straight through to Max Roby in Empire Falls—are rooted in some way in my own father,” Russo says. “As I write in Elsewhere, I became closer to my father when I became of legal drinking age in New York, which at the time was 18.”

An only child, the young Russo had an extremely close relationship with his mother. In an early chapter of Elsewhere he vividly describes traveling with his mother on a vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, where he begins to perceive that, yes, he is her anchor but he is maybe also the millstone around her neck. Fiercely independent, Russo’s mother was also very needy. Even into adulthood, when Russo, his wife and two daughters moved about the country for his academic appointments, they brought his mother to live nearby. Russo and Barbara, a person of heroic patience and empathy, often joked mordantly that they were so bound to his mother that they “never went anywhere for longer than it took for her milk to spoil.” Through writing Elsewhere, Russo has come to believe that his mother suffered from a probably treatable mental disability in a time when such a disability was impossible to acknowledge.

“Writing Elsewhere did provide me with answers to the questions that I had posed to myself about my life and my mother’s life,” Russo says at the end of the phone call. “But in terms of closure, I still haven’t shaken that sense of betrayal and self-doubt because she’s not here to defend herself. I wanted to feel vindicated in having made the right choice to tell this story and I don’t quite feel that. . . . But after consulting with Barbara and my daughters it became clear to me that this book might actually help somebody else feel less alone in the world.”

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2012 September #2
The celebrated best-selling novelist recalls his late mother's powerful, often frustrating influence on his life and work. Fans of Russo's fiction (That Old Cape Magic, 2009, etc.) likely know that the model for his novels' working-class Northeast settings is Gloversville, N.Y., a factory town that fell on hard times in the 1960s. The author escaped his hometown when he went to college, but not without some company: His mother joined him as they drove to Arizona, and she'd rarely be far from him in the decades that followed. Russo describes how his life decisions were often limited by the need to accommodate his mother's particular needs and, later, debilitating illness: One of the book's most powerful chapters describes the author's mother as her dementia begins to set in, fussing over a clock as if the device itself had the power to control time. (What his extended family and estranged father called "nerves" was likely a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.) Though she routinely made her son's life more difficult, this book isn't borne out of bitterness, yet he doesn't place his mother in soft focus either. What Russo strives to do is place his mother's life in a social, cultural and personal context. He explores how her options were limited as a single mother in the '60s, as a product of a manufacturing culture that collapsed before her eyes, and as a woman who needed to define herself through other men. That Russo found the time and emotional space to write novels is somewhat miraculous given her demands, but he acknowledges he couldn't have written them without her. He inherited her sense of place as well as her compulsive personality, and this book contains much of the grace and flinty humor of his fiction. An affecting yet never saccharine glimpse of the relationship among place, family and fiction. Copyright Kirkus 2012 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2012 June #1

One can imagine the pleasures of reading a memoir by the Pulitzer Prize--winning author of Empire Falls, here recounts his upbringing in fading 1950s Gloversville, NY, much like the locales that make his fiction so memorable. But what should make this work truly arresting is his account of his mother, who wanted something better for herself and her son.

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Library Journal Express Reviews
This memoir focuses on Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Russo's (Empire Falls) life as the only child of an emotionally ill mother. Single after a brief marriage to his father, Jean worked at General Electric in Schenectady, NY, not far from the Gloversville flat she rented in her parents' house, despite her pride in being independent. Prone to emotional outbursts followed by calm periods, Russo's mother thought happiness would be available if she could just be elsewhere. Finally, she quit her job to move to Arizona with Russo when he goes there to college; it was then that Russo acknowledged her illness. Even after he married, had children, and had established a career, his mother's demands continued to shape the family dynamics. Verdict Without sentimentality, Russo succeeds in writing a poignant and humorous account of coping with his beautiful, charming, yet destructive mother. Recommended for readers interested in Russo's life and his upstate New York roots, as well as anyone with a mentally ill loved one.--Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo(c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2012 October #3

The Gloversville, N.Y., native and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (Empire Falls) fashions a gracious memoir about his tenacious mother, a fiercely independent GE employee who nonetheless relied on her only son to manage her long life. Separated from her gambler husband, Russo's mother, Jean, resolved that she and her son were a "team," occupying the top floor of Russo's grandparents' modest house in a once-thriving factory town where "nine out of ten dress gloves in the United States were manufactured," the author notes proudly. Yet its heyday had long passed, cheap-made goods had invaded, and the town by the late 1960s was depressed and hollowed out; Russo's intrepid, if erratic mother encouraged Russo to break out of the "dimwitted ethos of the ugly little mill town" and attend college at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. Except she came, too, on a hilariously delineated road trip in the 1960 Ford Galaxie Russo purchased and nicknamed the Gray Death. Despite the promise of a new job and new life, however, Jean was never content; many years later when Russo and his wife and increasing family moved from Tucson back to the East Coast as his job as an English professor and writer dictated, his mother had to be resettled nearby, too, in a long era of what Russo eventually saw as enabling her obsessive-compulsive disorder. Russo's memoir is heavy on logistical detail--people moving around, houses packed and unpacked--and by turns rueful and funny, emotionally opaque and narratively rich. (Nov.)

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