COMMITMENT, by Mona Simpson
If you are lucky enough to have come of age in a time when seeking treatment for anxiety is akin to, say, visiting a dermatologist for acne, you might have some trouble getting your bearings in “Commitment,” Mona Simpson’s generously proportioned, gently powerful seventh novel.
But if you grew up among people who whispered certain words — remember Mare Winningham’s mother in “St. Elmo’s Fire,” lowering her voice to say “cancer”? — then this story of three siblings fending for themselves in the 1970s after their mother enters a psychiatric hospital will demonstrate how far we’ve come in our conversations about mental health. (Though still not far enough.)
Diane Aziz is a single mother, nurse and gentle soul whose entire being skips like a warped record after her older son, Walter, leaves for college. She stops buying food, quits vacuuming, doesn’t go to work and eventually stops getting out of bed.
“But what was she resting from, exactly?” Walter wonders when he returns to Los Angeles from Berkeley to check on his younger siblings, Lina and Donnie. None of the Azizes have the language to talk about what’s happening, nor does Diane’s friend Julie, a fellow nurse and old friend who puts her own life on hold so she can help. The siblings’ thrice-married father is out of the picture. Other adults take an interest in the family but most maintain a polite distance that would have been customary at the time. Cue averted eyes, whispers and euphemisms.
Diane is admitted to Orchard Springs, an enormous hospital that appears to have been dropped onto its parklike campus “without any apparent plan.” One might say the same of “Commitment,” which has a meandering, aimless vibe until around Page 75. Simpson lingers for a bewilderingly long time on the minutiae of Walter’s life, then dips briefly into Lina’s (she’s 16, a junior on the honors track at Pali High, a school Diane got her kids into using the address of a woman she met at exercise class). Donnie, the youngest, is twice neglected — first by his mother, then by Simpson, who mostly ignores him until much later in the book.
But once Diane is in the care of a decent doctor, the path of “Commitment” becomes clear: It’s a survival story. Walter, Lina and Donnie will have to figure out how to take care of themselves. Sometimes they’ll be OK; sometimes they’ll flounder. Occasionally they’ll function as a team, but mostly they’ll adopt a solar system model, orbiting the sun (Diane, no matter how long she’s absent from their daily lives) while being steadied on their axes by Julie, who is the moon. A cynical reader might find Julie’s selflessness too convenient; I found it inspiring and wanted to know more about her. Instead I learned a lot about Thomas Story Kirkbride, the Quaker psychiatrist who believed that airy, well-lit hospitals could have a curative effect on patients. He was interesting too.
Simpson seems to have unlimited time and pages as she follows Walter, Lina and Donnie into adulthood, through graduations and first loves and soul-crushing jobs, from Los Angeles to New York City, into the realms of architecture and art and parenthood. Walter and Lina build their adult lives around the creation and destruction of beauty, as if the chance to exert control over a sculpture or a building might make up for the unsteady foundation of their family life. Simpson has clearly done her research on the development of the Pacific Palisades and on the gallery scene in Manhattan in the 1980s, among many other topics, and the fruits of her labor add texture to an already hefty story.
Donnie’s trajectory is less obvious than those of his siblings. He floats where the wind takes him; “trouble became his natural habitat,” Simpson tells us. Of course, “everyone in high school had found out what happened to his mother. He’d never told, but they knew. Girls wanted to talk about it, their voices pitying, hands eager.” When Donnie’s drug addiction becomes too big to ignore, the Azizes finally have to do the work they’ve avoided for so long. The therapy-speak is mine; Simpson would never be so heavy-handed. Her language is subtle to the point of coyness, with an arm’s-length quality that’s equal parts impressive and maddening.
What happens to Diane? you might wonder. She remains in the hospital. Her children and Julie visit, bearing news of the world. She’s a question mark in their lives, a constant source of worry and, yes, shame. (In one of the book’s most poignant moments, Lina catches a glimpse of a letter from her fiancé’s parents, one he tries to hide but not before she catches “the word hereditary crawling out from beneath his cuff.”)
As the years pile up, season after season, Diane is the lone constant in the Azizes’ ever-changing world. Which is not to romanticize her struggle, or to minimize its impact, but there are moments of beauty and intimacy at Orchard Springs. Simpson gives a close-up view of it all, plus a reminder that, so many years later — long enough that Mare Winningham is now a grandmother — we still have a tendency to look away from what we don’t understand.
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”
COMMITMENT | By Mona Simpson | 401 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $29
Source: Read Full Article