The story begins soon after the narrator has moved his elderly mother into Cherry Orchard, an "independent living" facility near his home in Providence, Rhode Island. Because of progressive dementia, she was no longer able to maintain her own home in New Jersey, or her relationship with Warren, her boyfriend of 20 years, with whom she spent part of each year in Florida. Thus, the narrator and his sister arranged for her move to an apartment in the exclusive Cherry Orchard, where her symptoms of Alzheimer's disease had to be hidden in order to ensure her eligibility.

The mother and son have never been close, especially after the boy's father died during his early adolescence. She was a pleasant, but distant parent, more interested in her own social and cultural affairs than in taking care of her children. The narrator is 34 years old now, married, with his own son. He has little emotional attachment to this woman who is slowing losing her mind, yet now he feels duty-bound to visit her at least weekly at Cherry Orchard.

The mother has almost entirely lost her short-term memory, yet at first blush seems surprisingly intact because of her ability to cover-up with social skills. She writes notes to herself. The texture of her life unravels. She begins to wander. Other residents complain. Occasionally a glimmer of insight appears, but quickly dies. Fighting his inclinations every step of the way, the narrator provides ever increasing physical and emotional support, while at the same time gaining a deeper understanding of how his mother was (and is). In the end nothing is changed--the mother spirals slowly downward. But in another sense everything has changed. The narrator concludes, "I had taken her in so that I could understand why I had agreed to take her. I would do it again."


At one level this is a beautifully crafted narrative of the human devastation wreaked by Alzheimer's disease. We are privy to the gradual disintegration of an interesting and mysterious woman and we see how she employs her defense mechanisms--charm, caginess, and all the rest--to ward off the approaching void. At a deeper lever we accompany the narrator on his journey of discovery, as his duty-driven relationship with his mother results in surprising new insights about the person she was, and eventually changes the nature of their bond-perhaps it would be safe to call it "love."

The retirement facility's name reverberates in my ear: The Cherry Orchard. I think of Chekhov's last play, in which an aging woman returns to her estate after a long absence only to find that she must sell the beautiful cherry orchard to pay her debts. Fancy, history, passion, and beauty must be sacrificed in order to meet the demands of the "real" world. (See annotation for The Cherry Orchard in this database.) In This Room Is Yours the Cherry Orchard is phony, sterile, and lacks history; and the aging woman buys the pseudo-Orchard-or has it bought for her-rather than selling it. Interestingly, Chekhov labeled The Cherry Orchard a comedy. Could it be that This Room Is Yours is also a slice of the human comedy?

Another riff on the novel's title: Virginia Woolf's essay "A Room of One's Own" comes to mind. In Woolf's essay she argues for the importance and independence of the female voice in literature and art; she stakes a claim for "a room of my own" in the creative life. In "This Room Is Yours" the room is the same as everyone else's. The demented woman has lost her independence and creativity.

A final note: Michael Stein introduces a series of short sections called "readers' guide" throughout the novel. These draw us out of the story and create a meta-narrative, as the narrator looks back on the action and suggests psychological, sociological, and medical interpretations.


Permanent Press

Place Published

Sag Harbor, N.Y.



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