Review

Massachusetts, California, Timbuktu

by Stephanie Rosenfeld

It can be risky to pick up a book like this. First you wonder how a book that is written from the perspective of a 12-year-old can keep you interested for 388 pages. Then, as you begin reading, you discover that there are so many asides and back story detours that you wonder if there is actually a plot. Then around page 20 it becomes a book you can't put down.

Justine Hanley will do for female adolescents what Holden Caulfield did for teenage boys back in the fifties. She reveals the thoughts and insights of a precocious mind as she struggles to understand the "Mystery of Mom." And how she expresses herself! Either the author is now 12 years old or she enjoys total recall, with the ability to notice and remember even the smallest impressions and details of her young life with humor and sensitivity.

At one point, Justine wishes she could tell the "Secret of Mom" to Ron, a guy who really likes Colleen and is the first decent man that she and her little sister, Rona, have ever met. She would like him to stick around but knows that she cannot tell him: "If you wanted Mom to like you, you had to be more of a loser. You had to live in a dump and hate kids and not know how to make your own dinner, let alone anyone else's, and most of all, you had to be mean to Mom."

When Justine describes her sadness she says, "Sadness and I were the same thing. I was the owner of all the sadness everywhere, and the meaning of it, too. If anyone wanted to know anything about sad, or if they wanted any for themselves, they'd have to come to me." It makes you want to find this kid and hug her until she gets relief. Despite these feelings, she never falters in caring for her mother and little sister, continuously giving what she herself seldom perceives she gets.

Yet, through all the anxieties, sadness and fears, the bright hope of a wise yet naïve little girl with her keen observations brings smile after smile and some laughs out loud to the reader. She notices, "The way we usually got a boyfriend was that Mom would meet someone somewhere for about one second…and she'd get him to write down his address, then we would send him an application."

As a 12-year-old, Justine can merely describe and react to Colleen because she doesn't have the tools to name the "mystery" that drives her mother. She can only observe the signs that precede a variety of bizarre behaviors, behaviors that put her children in harm's way and create havoc in the lives of those around her. If Justine had the tools, she would realize that the "Mystery of Mom" is, in reality, an undiagnosed mental illness known as Bipolar Disorder. It is a dangerous disease that can cut a swath of destruction through families, friends and employers. The good news is that it is treatable. And with treatment and medication, people like Colleen can become more responsible, productive and safe.

Unfortunately, too many people like Justine and her family will indulge the illness and enable the individual to continue their destructive behaviors with impunity. Today, there are many support groups, books and web sites designed to help the victims of Bipolar Disorder and their victims.

MASSACHUSETTS, CALIFORNIA, TIMBUKTU will take your emotions on an unforgettable ride and could encourage you to take a much closer look at the people around you.

Massachusetts, California, Timbuktu
by Stephanie Rosenfeld

  • Publication Date: June 1, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 034544826X
  • ISBN-13: 9780345448262