Alice, namesake of her mother, is a child without a home when her mother takes refuge in a sanatorium following the “accidental” drowning of the father. For a while, the mother becomes dependent upon the care of others, child-like, seeking “a little bit of Florida” as a respite from their cold clime, at the place where sad people go to get better.
Six-year old Alice is left in the care of Uncle Billy and Aunt Frances, floating between their possession-filled, strict-ruled, loveless home or Nonna’s estate of endless marbled rooms of precious objects, inhabited by an old woman who barely moves and cannot speak at all.
These are the formative years of Alice’s sleep-over life, where she drifts, motherless and rudderless, taught to always ask, “May I…?”, to be quiet, don’t bother, don’t touch, don’t… Watched one afternoon by a crone-like old woman, Alice attempts flattery, falsely complimenting, “You’re pretty.” The response is a harsh bark, “Who taught you to lie like that?” No one. No one bothers to teach Alice anything.
Chapter after lonely chapter goes by, pages like pinpricks with words that cut and scrape a young girl’s private existence from the leftovers of others. Alice’s relatives are wealthy but frugal, cheap really, and they have no room in their hearts for a little girl. More comfortable at her silent Nonna’s, Alice spills her heart out to the old woman; a few years later, she discovers the pleasure of boys and learns to drive, growing up with a vengeance.
Later, Alice reconnects with her mother in California, where she visits during summer vacations. Unsure whether to strike out in anger or curl next to her for comfort, Alice watches this phantom from her childhood grow dimmer, losing her beauty, her careless joy. This is not the bright mother of memory. But Alice hasn’t so many opportunities for love that she can squander one, so she stays for long afternoons of “remember when." Yet with each year, it becomes more painful to return. Eventually, this mother is virtually indistinguishable from Nonna, “an old woman, grown innocent."
This part of Florida is deeply compassionate, forgiving of the unforgivable, etched with the deep sorrow of loss and too little happiness. Women of a certain age will recognize the emotional tenor, the validation of generational continuity, the will to survive even the harshest circumstances.
In bruising prose that breaks my heart, Christine Schutt is ruthless, passionate and courageous. I am deeply touched by her prose-poetry, reminded of my own childhood, my mother and the fragile threads of that relationship, at the same time haunted by the images of Alice, like a little ghost with nowhere to hide. This author has crafted an extraordinary jewel of a novel, a lifetime of experience, a purging of grief and a rite of passage.