Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” Dion DiMucci, in an interview a half-century or so later, responded, “Ha! Try to leave!” There are those who could argue either point equally well (for myself, who am I to disagree with the man who gave us the immortal hit “Runaround Sue”). Then there are those who are stuck squarely in the middle.
An example of the latter is presented with crystal-clear vision in THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN, the third and latest of Hallie Ephron’s fictional works. Evie Ferrante of the Five-Boroughs Historical Society is at the helm of a project commemorating the day in 1945 when a B-25 accidentally crashed into the Empire State Building. The project is on track to meet its three-week deadline when Evie receives a cryptic text from Ginger, her sister, concerning their mother. As is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the book's early pages, Evie isn’t so much estranged from her mother as quietly absent. So it is that when Ginger informs Evie that Sandra has been hospitalized in a seriously ill condition, Evie’s first reaction is to let Ginger handle matters. Ginger, though, is neither ready nor willing to assume the brunt of the responsibilities --- a task she has repeatedly undertaken before --- and, as a result, Evie finds herself first at Sandra’s bedside and then back at the family home in the old neighborhood.
"Even if you figure things out early on, Ephron throws a curveball near the end that you’ll never see coming. All things considered, THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN is Ehphron’s best book to date."
Although Sandra, a closet alcoholic, has never been the picture of health physically or mentally, Evie is surprised at how much her mother has gone downhill. But Evie is even more surprised when she arrives at the family home, which is rundown on the outside and a disaster on the inside. It appears that her mother has taken up hoarding and forsaken cleaning. The return to the old neighborhood, in a quiet and remote corner of the Bronx, is a shock to her, due both to what has changed and what has not. One thing that has not changed is that Mina Yetner lives next door. Mina, well past her eighth decade, remains fiercely independent, keeping an eye on the neighborhood in spite of her own gradual physical and mental deterioration and the efforts of her somewhat pushy nephew to place her in an assisted living facility.
Mina and Evie re-establish an initially tentative but gradually closer bond, even as Evie slowly reaches the conclusion that her mother’s condition may not be entirely due to over-medication and alcohol abuse. Someone, it seems, may have given Sandra just the little extra push over the edge to cause her further difficulties. It seems as if someone is doing the same to Mina. There is a lot of interest in the property in their neighborhood, and a number of the elderly owners of the homes have recently joined the choir invisible. Is it coincidence, a simple result of the natural order of things? Or is it something else? Mina and Evie have a long and important history --- one of them has all but forgotten --- and, as they discover, they need each other to uncover an important set of truths. Lives depend on it.
THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN is a character-driven work, and those who read it simply for the mystery at its kernel might be a bit disappointed given that it’s fairly easy to figure out who is behind the shenanigans that plague Mina. They would also miss the point of this engrossing, well-told snapshot of the aging process as it approaches the middle of its downward curve. Ticking off the birthdays can be a frightening experience (though it beats the alternative) if you are at the stage where everything still works, but you can see the approach of the oncoming train that comes for us all sooner or later, manifested by such things as easy distractibility and short-term memory loss. Growing old isn’t for sissies, and the transformation from a wolf to a lamb, if not a docile one, is not easy. Mina is a protagonist who rages against the dying of the light, but not without humor and a clear eye, as long as she has her glasses. And she is first among equals.
One of the more particularly noteworthy elements of the book is that the primary characters, particularly the younger ones, are entirely believable. They lose patience occasionally; old resentments flicker to the surface (if they were submerged at all to begin with); and they sometimes are unable to balance all of their additional duties. What is important is that they strive actively and mightily to do the right thing. Anyone who is a caregiver to an elderly relative will no doubt see a part of themselves here and smile through a tear or two. Oh, and about that mystery: Even if you figure things out early on, Ephron throws a curveball near the end that you’ll never see coming. All things considered, THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN is Ephron’s best book to date.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 5, 2013