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Poignant novel of family set in West/East Coast USA

8th September 2023

Commitment by Mona Simpson, poignant novel of family set in West/East Coast USA.

Poignant novel of family set in West/East Coast USA

This novel is set in the 1970s and opens in California. Diana Aziz is taking her son, Walter, from their home in Los Angeles up to Berkeley, where he is due to study medicine. As the years pass, the story also moves to the East coast of the country. There is a good sense of time and place. “Everyone in Berkeley hated LA, as if it were bottom of the state, where everything had gone wrong.” A lucky escape from the city for young Walter, perhaps. He has left behind his two younger siblings, Lina, who hopefully will also soon be going to college and young teenager, Donny.

Their mother, however, takes to her bed and deteriorates so much that she needs professional care in a facility dedicated to mental health conditions. Walter feels marooned, as he needs to be with his family at this time of crisis, but her stay becomes longer term and he shuttles back and forth when he can. He has a growing interest in the buildings where people with psychiatric difficulties are accommodated and feels himself drawn to architecture as a subject. He is motivated to finding a more holistic form of housing that would support and nurture those living in such ‘institutions’. Meanwhile Lina is supporting herself as best she can by working in an ice cream parlour (and there they have cactus ice cream, which I never knew existed – I love to find out new things!).

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This is a story of family and friendship and is beautifully written. Sometimes the narrative moves in a slightly discombobulated way from one character’s life to another but I think that is a deliberate device to highlight the fractured nature of life when there is a family member with a psychiatric condition in the midst. Their mother’s progression is not linear and, as she declines, the children have to adjust how they respond and how they think. There is guilt at following their own life trajectories, guilt at not being on hand to ‘be there’ for their mother, and as the elder siblings find their way forward, younger brother Donny finds himself slipping into a very different lifestyle.

This is a sage look at family dynamics and structures, and how enmeshed the relationships can be. The story and life in the 70s comes together very well. A novel for fans of Taylor Jenkins Reid.

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