Young Edward is not all right. He rarely sleeps, hardly talks, stares at his hands, and basically seems to be living in his own isolated world. His parents, Jack and Rachel, are worried and frustrated. They have Edward undergo tests and therapies to no avail. And with another young son, a new baby on the way, and no financial security, it seems the family is on the brink of spinning out of control.
Told from Rachel's perspective, Ann Bauer's debut novel A WILD RIDE UP THE CUPBOARDS begins with the anxiety and claustrophobia of a family focused on one disabled member. On the one hand it is a novel about Edward and the particular challenges he faces. On the other, it is about a woman struggling to maintain normality in the face of raising children in less than optimum health, with an often unpredictable partner and in near poverty.
The first half or so of the book is concerned with Edward's health. Is he autistic? Does he have a brain tumor? Is he teachable? What do his infrequent periods of lucidity mean? Rachel tries to provide comfort and stability for her oldest son while exploring treatment options and trying to find the root of his mysterious problems.
One clue to Edward's disability may be Rachel's Uncle Mickey, who was also prone to silence, sleeplessness and mental isolation. Bauer seems unable, however, to draw any real connections or comparisons between Mickey and Edward. Despite that, Mickey remains an interesting and compelling character.
Before the end of the novel Edward's abilities seem to have improved and the focus becomes Jack and Rachel's relationship and finally Rachel's role as a single parent. Time begins to move rather quickly, leaving many questions unanswered for readers. Bauer does not always follow or complete the literary paths she begins down in this book and so it feels at times a bit sloppy and unfocused.
Still, readers will find a strong and likable figure in Rachel, fighting to give her family a good life with what is at her disposal. Jack remains a mystery and Bauer suggests that it is he and Edward, not Mickey and Edward, who are really alike. Rachel unfortunately doesn't see this until it is too late.
Although weak in some areas, A WILD RIDE UP THE CUPBOARDS is still quite readable and Bauer's journalistic voice will appeal to many readers. This is a portrait of parenthood and womanhood filled with honesty and poignancy, thankfully devoid of any overwrought sentimentality. It is the story of a person trying to hold on to the myth of the happy American family, finding that sometimes more than love is necessary to make things right and that there is darkness and sorrow on some branches of every family tree.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 24, 2011
A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards