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!