Review: Unforgettable by Paulette Alden
Miriam Batson, the protagonist of these nine short stories, first appeared in Paulette Alden’s previous collection, Feeding the Eagles (1988). Like Alden herself, Miriam is a writer and sometime college professor based in Minnesota. Although it is intriguing to ponder how autobiographical these stories might be, ultimately it makes little difference to a reader’s enjoyment. The close third-person perspective creates such intimate knowledge of the main character that one cannot help but feel sympathy for her professional and personal struggles.
The opening story, “The Student,” is among the strongest. Miriam learns that Brian, one of the students in her advanced short story class, has attempted suicide – in three different ways. Horror cedes to compassion as she realizes how he must have been suffering, even while keeping up a cheerful exterior in class. As she visits Brian in the hospital during his recovery, Miriam is taken aback by her feelings for him. Hesitant to borrow spiritual language, she still senses that she and Brian have a soul connection. At the same time, she realizes that no relationship is entirely one thing or another; their teacher-student dynamic may resemble a parent-child link, but sex keeps creeping in unexpectedly. This story, which reminded me of “Rising Tide” from Elizabeth Spencer’s recent collection, Starting Over, beautifully illustrates the often surprising bonds that can form across age, gender, and class boundaries.
In “Sorrow,” told in the present tense, Miriam learns of the death of one of her black nannies and returns to South Carolina to pay her respects. Filled with memories of segregation, this story shares the social conscience of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. “Enormously Valuable” returns to the first story’s academic setting, with Miriam receiving notification that someone else – a less experienced man – has gotten the teaching job she applied for. She decides to take legal advice to determine whether this is a case of sex discrimination. This story tips over into melodrama slightly, but is still an affecting look at career disappointment. The themes of bureaucracy and petty infighting in a university English department recall John Williams’s Stoner.
“Swimming, Snow” was commissioned as the Minnesota Center for Book Arts’ 1993 Winter Book. Miriam slowly starts to heal after her father’s death, thanks to the therapeutic effects of activities like massage, classical music, and sex. This one is a perfect segue into the collection’s last five stories, which together reflect on Alden’s experiences as a caregiver during her mother’s final years with dementia. “Her Mother’s Pocketbook” begins with Miriam moving her 85-year-old mother from South Carolina to a Minnesota senior’s apartment. “In many ways, her once-formidable mother is helpless.”
Five months later, she has to be moved again, this time to a nursing home – the subject of both “Not Ready” and “Home.” Miriam’s mother is losing her mental capacities and physical independence, yet she remains opinionated and strong-willed; “What a mix of powerlessness and willfulness, of meekness and feistiness she was.” Miriam soon has to face previously unimaginable tasks, such as administering an enema to her own mother. She “felt a kind of wrenching compassion, not exactly for her mother, but for flesh, this mortal flesh.” Alden gives a powerful sense of how repetitive and unpleasant many of the caregiver’s chores can become; Miriam “got so sick of her mother, her need, she could die or scream.”
Some of these stories repeat basic information, probably a result of them starting as separate tales. However, they might have been edited to cut redundant details, or even combined into a multi-part novella. In “Lost Lake,” set a year after the move to the nursing home, Miriam and her husband take a chance on a two-night lake lodge vacation with her mother, but after one sleepless night they decide to give up and leave early. It is a bittersweet account of facing up to reality and accepting limitations, but also of deepening compassion. Miriam can now better understand how frightening dementia must be for her mother: she “couldn’t imagine what that was like—each moment new, maybe scary, nothing familiar.”
The title story, the last in the collection, does indeed have a stand-alone feel, combining all the emotions of the previous four into the most shrewdly crafted of the tales, rich with symbolism. It opens with Miriam driving to a monastery for a writing retreat. Although it is April, it is snowing, and Nat King Cole’s song “Unforgettable” is on the radio. Ironically, that title is also the name given to her mother’s nursing home’s remodeling campaign. Miriam has been taking beginner’s Italian lessons; her bewilderment is an echo of her mother’s confusion about language. In addition, Easter is coming up the following week, and the symbology of death and restoration plays a significant role. Miriam can no longer deny that her mother will be dead soon, yet she feels that she will live on – perhaps even through Miriam’s work: “Writing is her religion, her resurrection. Long after her mother is gone, she will have this moment. Her mother will rise from the dead and live again in those words.”
As in Susan Allen Toth’s No Saints around Here (see our review), Alden tenderly conveys the overwhelming difficulties and small joys of being the primary caregiver for a loved one with serious health problems. She is unflinchingly realistic but not humorless in the face of impending death, like Roz Chast in Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? (see our review). Many have likened the Miriam Batson tales to Olive Kitteridge, a novel made up of linked short stories, and Alden indeed shares Elizabeth Strout’s talent for thoroughly reproducing a middle-aged woman’s life by way of sensitive, salient details. You do not have to share any of Miriam’s experiences to value her insight and admire her courage. I daresay every reader will find at least one aspect of these stories to be, as the title suggests, simply unforgettable.
With thanks to the author for sending an electronic version of the book. I was provided with a free copy in exchange for my honest review.
About the Author
A former Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing at Stanford, Alden has taught memoir and fiction writing extensively, at the University of Minnesota, Carleton College, St. Olaf College, and the Key West Literary Seminar. Originally from South Carolina, Alden lives in Minneapolis, where she critiques manuscripts and blogs on books and writing on her website. She is the author of Feeding the Eagles, an earlier collection of Miriam Batson short stories, Crossing the Moon (1998), a memoir, and the novel The Answer to Your Question, which won the Kindle Book Review’s 2013 Best Indie Book Award in the suspense category.