Life in Miniature by Linda Schlossberg

I was sent this to review from Librarything, and when I got it, as it took nearly three months to arrive! –  I couldn’t really remember why I’d requested it in the first place. Set in 1980’s California and narrated by 12 year old Adie, it chronicles the slow decline into mental illness of Adie’s mother, and how she and her older sister Miriam cope with the fallout. I think what initially interested me was the fact that a roadtrip through California was mentioned – I thought I might catch a glimpse of the Californian landscape, and also that Adie was marked out as being different because she was so small, due to having been born three months prematurely. I was born three months prematurely, and I wondered whether Linda Schlossberg would have anything interesting to say about being born early, but she didn’t, and that turned out to be a rather pointless plot detail that went nowhere and seemed to be simply introduced to justify making Adie abnormally short and provide the title of ‘Life in Miniature’. I always get really annoyed when people assume people born early all turn out to be abnormal in some way. It’s not true! I’m taller than both of my siblings, was always top of my class at school, and until I was 20, didn’t need glasses, which is a miracle in itself seeing as everyone else in my family is as blind as a bat. I was perfectly formed and good to go at 6 months’ gestation, and had no medical problems whatsoever. I don’t consider myself a miracle; as my mum always says, I was just born impatient. It’s the cross I have to bear!

Anyway, I digress. Life in Miniature didn’t provide me with any insights into the Californian landscape or prematurity, but it was highly entertaining and a very interesting novel nonetheless. I’m not a huge fan of modern fiction in general, but I am forcing myself to read more recent novels, and I am enjoying the things they have to say about the society we live in now, and how our unique political, cultural and social environment affects our behaviour and interactions with the wider world. Adie’s mother has become obsessed with drugs, and with stopping her daughters from becoming involved with them. In 1980’s California, drugs are a real issue amongst school aged children, and this genuine threat has become amplified to abnormal proportions in Mindy’s mind. Her always apparent tendency to worry and suffer from nerves and panic attacks becomes increasingly problematic as her daughters become teenagers and her control over their lives reduces. Unable to monitor their friendships or after school activities, Mindy develops irrational fears and embarrasses the girls by questioning their friends about drugs and insisting on picking them up from everywhere. Gradually this fear of drugs morphs into a fear of being followed, and eventually this fear prompts Mindy to move the girls around from apartment to apartment and from school to school until Miriam finally has enough and runs away, leaving Adie alone to deal with their now reclusive and completely delusional mother. Miriam was the only one able to rationalise with Mindy, and with her gone, Mindy’s hold on reality appears to have completely collapsed. Convinced that the ‘men in the white car’ who are ‘following’ her have found out where she lives, she takes Adie out of school and leaves their home behind, going on a seemingly endless trip through California and staying in motels until Adie decides that enough is enough, and takes some action of her own.

Within the narrative arc of Mindy’s gradual loss of sanity is Adie’s own enforced growth from child to young woman and her struggle to have a normal teenage life while lacking a stable home environment. Everyone at her school knows Adie’s mother is ‘different’ and thinks of Adie as weird because of it. She has few friends, and when she does make friendships, the pain of realising that teenagers are a fickle and nasty bunch is very touchingly portrayed. Adie worships her beautiful and glamorous mother and popular older sister, but they cannot provide her with the stability or consistency she needs because they are incapable of sacrificing their own needs for Adie’s. Mindy’s illness prevents her from providing a real home for her daughters, and so they end up having to give up their own childhoods to become the mothers of an overgrown wayward daughter, reassuring her, feeding her, and keeping her safe from worry and harm. Miriam, by virtue of being the oldest child, is forced to take on the role of mother to Mindy and Adie, and when she has had enough of this, she makes the decision to walk out, leaving Adie with little choice but to take on the burden Mindy has become, as well as attempt to be a normal schoolgirl in a suburban town not used to, or prepared to, deal with abnormality in their midst.

Some people commented on Librarything that they found the lack of familial or community support for the family unconvincing, but I found it simply a commentary on how isolated our society has become. Mindy is a single mother, with no parents nearby, and few friends. Despite being aware of Mindy’s mental fragility, the parents of Miriam and Adie’s schoolfriends don’t want to get involved. They are very much left to themselves, and despite living in squalor, having little to eat, often not turning up at school and having a mother who can barely get out of bed to look after, the girls are offered no help from outside sources and their plight is barely noticed by those able to give them the support they need. Adie is taken out of school and dragged across California; no one asks why she isn’t in school or thinks it strange that a woman and her teenage daughter should be staying indefinitely in a sleazy roadside motel in the middle of nowhere. No one wants to get too close, to risk being made culpable for this woman and her children, even though both Miriam and Adie have suffered and lost their childhoods due to their mother’s illness. I found this aspect of the novel fascinating, and also desperately sad, in that so many young people must live in homes like this, overlooked and unsupported, simply because there is no one close enough to care.

Adie’s voice is fresh and convincing; her insights into the difficulties of being a teenager, of being an adoring younger sister, and the desperate desire just to be normal and fit in were heartbreaking and so tender. The ending was a little confusing, but I thoroughly enjoyed the novel nonetheless and found it a very pertinent and intriguing portrayal of the hidden side of modern life and the struggles faced behind the closed doors of respectable suburbia.

I’m happy to send my copy of this to anyone who wants it; say so in the comments and I’ll draw a winner in a few days if there is more than one taker. I’ll ship anywhere!

25 comments

  1. Lovely, thoughtful review. I’ve seen some publicity about this one and wondered abt the significance of the premature heroine. This one is a little too dark for me, I think — I’m cringing just from the description!

  2. No need to enter me — though it would conveniently save you the shipping :p — I’ve got plenty of depressing fiction (and nonfiction) already. When I read books like this, I get sad that I wasn’t friends with the protagonists. My mumsy would have totally sorted Adie out if she’d been in my class at school.

  3. This sounds like an amazing novel! Yes it’s dark and is written on a touchy subject, but I think that’s what makes it so fun to read. And about the isolated society, I don’t know if this true of every society but atleast where I live, people are not all that willing to help the family next door. They smile and wave hello, but other than that there’s this invisible boundary that they seem afraid to cross.
    No need to enter me into the contest, but this definetly sounds like a book I’ll read someday in the future🙂

    1. It’s a very interesting and eye opening one, I think. Yes – I think most communities, especially in urban areas, are like this nowadays. The irony is, most of us live on top of other strangers – in houses close to others, in apartment buildings, etc, and yet we barely know the people who live within a few feet of us. That wouldn’t have been the case fifty years ago, I’m sure. I hope you manage to get around to reading this at some point!

  4. I would love to receive this book. I live in sunny (and rainy) Malaysia. The scenario – people living isolated sad lives is harder to imagine here where extended family and neighbourliness can border on inquisitive and in-your-face sort of caring. Still, as modernity encroaches more into our lifestyle, the distance between people also increases…

    1. It’s interesting how different communities are, and that what some people view as positive, others view as negative! I know I would hate everyone knowing my business, but I also love the idea of having people around who can be caring and supportive at a time of need. I will enter you in the draw, Lat! Thanks for your comments.

  5. I will look for this. I just talked (online) to a former student of mine whose mother is in the hospital because she tried to commit suicide. This little girl said that she is tired of being the adult and her Mom the child. She chats with me online because she can’t face her friends and teachers at school. She is ten. Maybe a book like this will give me an insight in what to say to her. I have spent hours chatting but I don’t know how to help. I will look it up. Thank you for your insightful review.

    1. Janet, what a heartbreaking situation. I’m glad she has you to speak to. It can be so difficult to know what to do, short of scooping her up and bringing her home with you. I hope she has some family she can go to and be safe with. I will enter you in the draw for the book – it sounds like you could do with it. Hope you manage to get some clarity as to the best way forward.

  6. A very thoughtful review, Rachel, but what I found most interesting is the fact that you were born so early! I love that your mum said you were born impatient. I’m sure both your parents must have wondered what they had in store with a baby ready to live life on its own personal timetable!

    1. Thanks Darlene! Oh yes – they’ve been rueing the day I arrived ever since! Haha! My mum always says that giving birth to me was the most horrendous experience of her life – understandable, given the circumstances – but as I always say – I saved her three months of pregnancy! I did her a favour!😉

  7. Oh, Rachel, my book pile already runneth over! I will put this on my list to look for (the list runneth over as well). Your review draws me into the story, compelling me to read it.

    A long, long time ago I read a book of Gloria Steinem’s essays on women. I think it is called Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. In the book, she included an essay on her own childhood, which was difficult. Her mother suffered from mental illness for which, at the time, there was no help, forcing Gloria to pretty much raise herself. You might be interested in it at some point. I always find it amazing how some succumb to their childhoods, and others rise above it.

    1. Oh Penny, it’s just so difficult to get that list in any type of order, isn’t it?! How sad. I feel so awful for these children who grow up in homes where they have to be the adult. It is, however, encouraging to see that such childhoods can be overcome by those with the will and strength to rise above them. Thank you for the recommendation. I will look it up.

  8. Sounds pretty great! It’s really horrible what you can find behind the doors of seemingly normal and repectable suburbian homes, if you decideto really look that is. Mostly, I’m happy that I live in a big city and everyone minds their own business, but of course that attitude is what makes situations like the one described in the book possible.

  9. This review reminds me a lot of The Painted Mum by Jacqueline Wilson. Actually, the themes in this book are similar to many of Wilson’s books.

    1. I used to love Jacqueline Wilson! I haven’t heard of that one though. Must have been after my time of reading her! I agree – a lot of Wilson’s plots are about dysfunctional families. I remember she caused a lot of controversy when she first started writing because of it.

  10. ‘I was perfectly formed and good to go at 6 months’ gestation’ – Rachel, you can’t think how this tickled me! I don’t imagine you lack any attributes – on the contrary.
    As for the book, it seems to belong with so many other ‘confessional’ modern tales of childhood which are alluring to me since I always want to compare to my own (unhappy) infancy. Perhaps this is one too many.

    1. Oh Chrissy, you are far too kind to me! I’m sorry you didn’t have the happiest of childhoods. Perhaps this would be too much of a sad read for you – it’s certainly not an uplifting book!

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