Only recently has the curtain been lifted from mental illness, the many disorders that shatter families, their experiences shrouded with shame and confusion. In her novel of a brilliant girl with a bright future, Grossman describes the twenty-seven-year journey of Elise Blazek, from her admission to Princeton to the diagnosis of rapid cycling bipolar disorder that turns her promising future into a battle to survive the betrayal of her own mind.
Elise’s mother has been consumed with her daughter’s future success, tenaciously channeling her interests and ambitions. Elise’s erratic tendencies flicker in an act of vandalism in 1969 that is quickly swept under the carpet by her Czech immigrant parents - the passive, kindly Stephan and proud Irena - even the quiet cousin, who judiciously avoids provoking the volatile Elise. So begin the years of estrangement, Elise shutting out the woman who invested in her future, the patience of a college friend her only link to normalcy.
Irena’s world is defined by her family’s immigrant history, stories told over the dinner table, years of hardship and a new life in a small town outside Chicago. All her hopes are poured into Elise, who rejects her mother’s culture for a love affair with Russian literature and a brief marriage to her Russian language graduate professor. In chapters that alternate between mother and daughter, Elise’s deterioration begins, the mania always giving way to depression as she cycles rapidly from one state to another. A world away in her small house, Irena clings to the Elise of her imagination: the girl with the high IQ, the limitless future. She has no capacity for understanding what is happening to her daughter, accepting Elise’s experiences at face value, trusting Elise’s perspective as authentic: “All of you raised in radiance, drawn to darkness.”
Years pass. Elise improves with each new doctor and medication, only to reject those physicians and their remedies. Irena answers middle-of-the-night phone calls, anxious to step into the breach of years to rescue her daughter. As Grossman perfectly illustrates, this is the path of mental illness, a collision of paranoia and need that draws mother and daughter into the whirling vortex of a folie a deux - a shared delusional disorder that threatens both their sanity. All too easily, Irena steps into Elise’s delusions, mother and daughter lost in a deadly dance where madness beats a manic tune and everyone is the enemy.
Although this particular enmeshment of mother and daughter may be situational, outside the norm of everyday experience, the author presents not only valuable insights into the nature of rapid cycling bipolar disorder but also the tangled web of family expectations, a relationship filled with landmines even without the extra burden of mental illness. Frightening in its unchecked intensity and destructiveness, the novel offers hope for existing in a world where a young woman feels she is “eating her own brain,” her grand schemes turned to ashes by the extremes of a troubled mind. There is peace, medication, accommodation, lessened expectations, life made manageable in small moments. Even the bonds of mother and daughter are stronger than that which would destroy them, a heartening message for others so afflicted.