As daughters, do we become echoes of our mothers and grandmothers? And if our mothers failed us as role models, are we doomed to fail in the same way? These are the haunting central questions of With or Without You by Domenica Ruta, lifting it above other recent examples of the dysfunctional “mommy and me” memoir.
Nikki grows up working class in Danvers, Massachusetts, in a rickety house on the river she shares with her mother, Kathi, and her Sicilian grandmother. Kathi is a drug user and dealer with pretensions toward art, a mother who would keep her daughter home from school to watch the Godfather trilogy on TV. The opening sequence of the book sets up the mother-daughter dynamic beautifully: Kathi drags her young daughter along while she bashes in the windshield of another woman’s car. “Don’t look at Mummy right now, OK?” Kathi asks.
But Nikki does look. What she sees and experiences as a child—drugs, abuse, neglect—she learns to repress. It didn’t happen. This is how she survives: by compulsively cleaning her mother’s house, organizing its chaos and blotting out the adults cutting lines of drugs on the coffee table. Kathi’s aspirations for her daughter eventually provide an escape hatch: scholarships to boarding school, a liberal arts college and an MFA program. But cutting ties with her toxic mother doesn’t free Nikki from Kathi’s echoing influence. It’s only after freeing herself from her own alcoholism that Nikki—now Domenica—begins to remember and process her childhood.
Memory is as central a theme as mothers in With or Without You. The storyline is episodic, flashing back and forth between scenes and characters and timelines. This can feel awkward in the early pages until Ruta’s method becomes clear: In sobriety, her memories of childhood and Kathi emerge in fragments. Because it acknowledges these gaps in memory, this memoir feels honest, like it has hit a bedrock truth—that we both love and hate our mothers, and that this ambivalence lingers long after we’ve left them.
“Write me a letter,” Kathi asks her daughter. In this stunning new memoir, Domenica Ruta writes a love letter to the woman she had to leave behind in order to live.Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
Billed dramatically as the debut of a prodigy--Ruta was finalist for the Keene Prize of the University of Texas at Austin, where she received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers--this memoir assays the author's rise from a particularly tough childhood. Her mother was a drug dealer and user, and Ruta had to break from her to survive. An in-house favorite being compared to Mary Karr's The Liar's Club and Jeanette Walls's The Glass Castle.[Page 58]. (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Life under an erratic single mom, first on welfare, then a millionaire, in the 1980s proved a wearying contest for survival of the fittest as recounted in this valiant, bittersweet debut by Danvers, Mass., native Ruta. Five feet tall and Italian American, with a loud gutter-mouth, copious breasts, and bleached blond hair, Kathi aka Mum lived from one menial job to the next that kept her comfortably supplied with pain killers she happily shared with her only daughter while concocting conflicting plans for her including school scholarships and early pregnancy. Ruta lived in the basement of her grandfather's house on Massachusetts's North Shore, surrounded by her mother's other Italian American relatives ("a band of lunatics" who enjoyed a "thuggish, moronic code of honor"), as she learned from hard experience to endure her mother's overbearing solicitude, such as when her mother sent 13-year-old Ruta to Catholic school on picture day dolled up like a trollop or traipsing through the most exclusive New England boarding schools seeking admittance. In fact, Kathi's hare-brained scheme worked, and Ruta was admitted to Phillips Academy Andover, where, to her mother's delight, her decidedly square daughter could finally catch up on sex and drugs. Fueled by profits from taking over her second husband's livery business, Kathi delved hard into heroin and other drugs, providing a titanic model for her daughter both to emulate and overcome. Survival required separation, and Ruta's account is a fairly dry, restrained chronicle of a wrenching embrace of health and sobriety. (Mar.)[Page ]. Copyright 2012 PWxyz LLC