- This Room Is Yours
This Room Is Yours, Michael Stein's engaging novel about a son and his mother, who is losing her memory, raises three significant questions: Whose room is this? What will happen to the mother, to the son, and to their relationship? Does it matter whether the narrative is fiction or memoir?
The reader will likely guess that the title refers to an institutional room in which the mother will eventually be placed. Indeed, this is one of the rooms anticipated in the novel. However, the narrator, although he does not say it in so many words, is himself crossing the threshold to a new "room," a space in which he is paradoxically closed in with his mother and in need of making space for her. At the opening of the narrative, he has moved his mother, who had been living in New Jersey and making lengthy trips to be with her male friend in Florida, to Providence, Rhode Island, where he teaches and lives with his wife and son. Neither the wife nor the son nor the narrator's sister, who lives at some geographic distance, is a part of the physical and emotional landscape that the narrator shares with his mother as he makes his regular visits to her at Cherry Orchard, an assisted-living residence. He tactfully but unquestionably establishes their distance from him as he makes his sojourn along this uncharted road. Rather, the reader and he travel together through the past (his mother's past and the past he shared with her), the present (his preoccupation with her day-to-day life, his feelings about the responsibility, and his responses to those feelings), and the future (what will happen to her as she descends further into dementia and the consequences of such for him).
Stein includes many descriptions of space, beginning with a great depiction of North Main Street in Providence. The narrator is driving his mother along this typical commercial American road where the often unlovely shops provide the mundane necessities of life. Its "strip of diamond remounting shops, car security businesses, a custom shoe service, [and] . . . trophy outlet" belies the charm of Providence's stylish Benefit Street and the various campuses up the hill (11). Yet this "land of black and white and chrome" (11) appeals to the narrator for its "behind-the-times feel" (11) and engages his mother, who calls out, "I had a Frigidaire" (12), as they pass the appliance store, leaning out the window to get closer to the place. The practical and straightforward nature of the narrator established in these early pages makes him a sympathetic character. At the same time, the mother's response to her [End Page 322] surroundings is not without its appeal. The reader senses right away that it will not be hard to engage with this couple. The ride that begins on the first page presages a voyage along a road that, to many people, often seems as grim as streets like North Main. Yet the narrator makes the street both unattractive and appealing, recognizing the depressing nature of the view while acknowledging what is authentic about it. This opening to the novel provides a metaphor for his relationship with his mother: some parts are particularly unattractive, both in the past and the present (e.g., after the father died, the mother left the fourteen-year-old narrator alone in their New Jersey home for several days at a time for the convenience of staying in Manhattan, where she worked), but there are many things that are genuine about each of them and about them together.
Because the narrative begins in the present and avoids proleptic observations, the reader becomes engaged in the progress of the illness and with the mother/son relationship in a mimetic fashion. Two advantages to this are that the reader's interest in the story is sustained, and the verisimilitude offers one an opportunity to consider step-by-step how such a situation develops. Unlike Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, for example...