Friday, October 24, 2014

Chast's Graphic Novel: A Book Review

Published 6 May 2014.
Growing old has some great benefits. Frailty is not one of them.

New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast focuses her talents on describing her parents' journey into late adulthood--their 90s.  And it's not pretty.

The title of her book actually defers potential readers: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (2014).

So why read a graphic novel about the challenges of supporting frail parents?

UPDATE: Chast won the 2014 National Book Critic Circle Award for the autobiography category for this book.

Even if you aren't going to support parents or a spouse through this process, you will have friends going through some of the things that Chast draws and narrates.

But you won't have the exact same journey. Chast is the only child of parents who lived for decades in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.

Her father, George, was gifted with language, but very bad at managing the physical world.  And he suffered from a never-diagnosed anxiety disorder.  His daily rituals could be limiting and very annoying to others.  The challenges of aging, including dementia, just made him more fearful.

Her mother, Elizabeth, was a very strong-willed woman.  She micromanaged everyone around her, especially George. And she had a bad temper and was unapologetic about it.   She insisted that others adopt her version of reality, even when the facts contradicted her.  She did not accept the limitations of her aging process and got herself into a few tough spots as a result.

Between these two eccentrics stands the author and only child, Roz.  Because she lives an inconvenient distance from her parents, her ability to support them is compromised. Add to that Elizabeth's insistence that they don't need any help, and a tragicomedy ensues.

But even if your parents aren't Jewish, apartment dwelling, stubborn or struggling with dementia, you might still need to figure our their finances, their health care, their prescription medications and their options for "getting some help. "  Hiring extra help might range from nonmedial home health aids, assisted living centers, nursing homes, private nurses or even hospice.  Chast's memoir gives a dizzying tour of these and other senior services as the supporting cast members for her family drama.

But you could read about those services in a brochure distributed by your local Area Agency on Aging.

Why a graphic novel?

Chast offers what government-issued pamphlets cannot: the emotional roller coaster that adult children ride as their parents' independence becomes more and more threatened by the compounding problems of advanced age.  You see her wrestle with the competing emotions of resentment, guilt, worry and love.  She shows that the response isn't always clear but it's often urgent.

Reading her memoir won't be pretty, but sometimes it's laugh-out-loud funny at times anyway.  That may sound horrible to admit that, but when life spins out of control, laughter is a good strategy to prevent you from losing your mind.


Special Exits: A Graphic Novel
Strong, Smart Women Wrestling with Caregiving
Movies about Older Adults Active in the Dying Process


  1. I love this book and think it should be required reading for everyone with parents -- which is to say: everyone. I wrote about taking on the role of caregiver for my Dad and so this story was quite familiar, but seeing the experience through the eyes of genius cartoonist, Roz Chast, opened the story up in new ways. This book is sad and touching and funny as heck and oh, what a relief it is to laugh.

    1. I don't know if you have this set to receive replies, but do you see that she just won the NBCC Award for it! Squee.

  2. This is a new part of life that's come about with the advent of medical improvements and better health. I know it well.

  3. I will have to read this one. Only one parent is left between randy and I...and he is frailer every day

  4. It's been my experience that you better make peace with your parent's personalities because they are never going to change. In fact, the traits that make you crazy are only going to intensify as we age. But there is funny in all -- if done in love and respect. It sounds like this books is an honest, good faith look. And it certainly helps to read something and find out you aren't the only one dealing with these issues.

  5. A brave and incredible book. Thanks for sharing.

  6. It's all going to happen anyway. We might as well find something to laugh about. I can only imagine, with the advancements in technology, how the stories will be told about us getting old. Thanks for your review. :)

  7. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention - I am always look for good ones to add to my list for my commute - this looks great!

  8. Oh my word, I should have written this book. lol. I feel like I'm always saying this to someone, can we talk about something more pleasant? lol. There are times when I feel like I have a bunch of Debbie Downers around me! I think I'm going to look forward to this read. Added it to my list of next reads!