In her spare but compelling third novel, Elisabeth Hyde deftly explores the confusing and sometimes devastating effects mental illness has upon family. Told through a series of flashbacks, CRAZY AS CHOCOLATE illustrates perfectly and with great compassion how the legacy and stigma of this still misunderstood disease is passed down from parent to child.
Growing up, sisters Izzy and Ellie knew there was something not quite right with their mother. She danced in the rain, told outrageous lies on every subject to anyone who would listen, took the girls on wild car rides throughout the state of Washington and beyond at a moments notice. So what if those day trips sometimes ended with the trio miles from home in the middle of the night with no idea how to find their way back. They wouldn't have it any other way.
As Mimi's behavior becomes increasingly more bizarre and erratic --- from dumping the family car off a cliff to compulsively spraying the house with Raid to keep them all from being killed by Black Widow spiders while they sleep --- the girls gradually begin to realize that the situation is far more serious than they first allowed themselves to believe. Though no one in the house dare speak the words "mental illness" aloud, they all know that mom's frequent trips to the hospital for "rest" have nothing to do with anything physical. Mimi's mental health deteriorates over the years, ultimately reaching a breaking point on the night of her 41st birthday, when she sneaks off into the garage and ends her life.
The novel opens on the eve of Izzy's own 41st birthday. Nervous and slightly wary of entering what she calls "virgin time," she reluctantly agrees to a visit from her father and older sister Ellie to help her through. It is during this weekend gathering that the true legacy of Mimi's illness is played out. Ellie arrives with seven-year-old daughter Rachel in tow, and it becomes apparent very quickly that all is not well between the two. Having already been diagnosed as clinically depressed, manic-depressive, borderline, obsessive-compulsive and phobic, a phone call from Ellie's estranged husband Wilson reveals that Ellie recently attempted to take her own life by jumping out of a penthouse level apartment window as a terrified Rachel watched. Hoping to seek sole custody of Rachel, Wilson asks Izzy to consider testifying in court against her sister. Torn between loyalty to Ellie and memories of growing up with an unstable and sometimes dangerous mother, Izzy is forced to make one of the toughest decisions of her life.
Although these are not new issues in literature, and Hyde doesn't cover any new ground here, she tells her story with grace and a gentle humor that makes this one stand out from the pack. Her writing shines brightest during flashback sequences where mother and daughters interact, almost making the present day scenes seem rather flat and one-dimensional in comparison. But overall this is a sweet, satisfying story about the bonds that hold a family together through the tough and troubled times.
Reviewed by Melissa Morgan on September 2, 2003
Crazy As Chocolate