by Katherine Matthe
Sylvie Marchione is fourteen years old and facing the typical stresses of adolescence: piano exams, schoolwork, a growing need to discover her place in the world. She must also cope with the increasingly embarassing and even threatening behaviour of her mother who, until recently, had been a meticulous teacher, housekeeper, and concerned parent. Sylvie finds the changes in her mother incomprehensible: Marianne is sent home from work, ostensibly to “get her act together”; she no longer maintains the household, leaving Sylvie to cope with everything; and she may even be suicidal.
Eventually a diagnosis is made to explain Marianne’s wildly unpredictable behaviour and rapidly shifting moods and memory lapses: early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Though Alzheimer’s is usually considered a disease associated with old age, cases such as Sylvie’s mother are not unheard of, and the theme of loss of a loved one, with its attendant guilt and grieving, is one with which many readers will be able to identify. That Sylvie must deal with such loss while her mother is still alive makes her pain and confusion even more tangible, even more heart-breaking.
The story relies heavily on conflict, rather than character development, to advance the plot: Sylvie’s conflict with her mother, and her mother’s conflicts with her illness and Sylvie’s father. At times, they overwhelm.
The parallel story of her best friend’s alcoholic mother serves as an interesting counterpoint to Sylvie’s. Both are dealing with difficult mothers. Both are taking on adult responsibilities. Yet the constant bickering between them over whose problems are greater diminishes our sympathy for both of them. Also, adult characters who are supposed to know Sylvie well and who could provide support for her, are highly unsympathetic and border on stereotype.
The first person narration has the advantage of evoking a powerful sense of the reality Sylvie is living. But occasionally, Sylvie thinks or says things that seem beyond her age and experience, and which come perilously close to sounding like the author is trying to convey information through her main character. Much of Sylvie’s characterization is based on her telling us, rather than showing us, what she is like—a much less satisfying way to come to know a main character.
Moore’s prose is spare and, at times, dry. Yet she manages to convey a great deal of information about Alzheimer’s without leaving the impression that one is reading a medical text. It would have been altogether too easy to sink to the level of bibliotherapy, and to her credit, if Moore felt the need to educate her readers about this sad and confusing illness, she has done it in a way that is mostly subtle, without succumbing to sentimentality or lecturing.
Katherine Matthews is a Toronto writer and reviewer.