Two years ago my daughter gave me a book of cartoons by Roz Chast (The Party, After You Left). To be honest I had never heard her name, but I immediately recognized her signature cartoons—she is a staff cartoonist for The New Yorker and her cartoons have appeared in many other places. And I loved her work.
Now Chast brings her distinctive style to her first memoir about caring for her aging parents. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant was a 2014 National Book Award Finalist, winner of the 2014 Kirkus Prize for nonfiction, and one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2014.
Can’t We Talk is the first graphic memoir I’ve read; in fact, it’s the first full-length graphic book I’ve ever read. I was immediately drawn in by Chast’s witty, lively cartoons, but at the same time touched and moved by her story. Can’t We Talk is at times funny but also poignant and often hard to read. It’s a detailed accounting of Chast being by her parents’ side through old age, which as readers we find out early on was not easy, evidenced by the first (non cartoon) sentence in the book:
“It was against my parents’ principles to talk about death…”
Chast tells the story in a blend of cartoons, sketches, photographs, and words in her own handwriting, making the book feel all the more intimate and therefore all the more powerful. And that’s the thing I loved most about this book. Chast allows us into one of the most private, difficult, and emotional parts of her life in her own hand. How much more personal can it get?
Early on Chast reveals that she did not have an easy relationship with her mother—in this passage and others:
“My mother was very tough and very smart. I knew, because she had told me, that her I.Q. was higher than my dad’s and mine: 152. Many people admired her, not just my father. She loved having authority, both at home and in the office of the assistant principal. When I got in trouble in seventh grade for drawing a caricature of an English teacher that I loathed, my mother came to my defense. But she was hard, and she had a temper. I gave up on ever trying to get “my way.” I barely knew it existed.”
It’s not easy for me to admit, but I understand and can empathize with Chast’s feelings, and this was something else I loved about her book. Chast and I had similarly tough relationships with our mothers. But what I found remarkable about her experience was—despite that difficulty—Chast had unwavering dedication and loyalty to her mother.
Despite, as Chast says, “My feelings about her were complicated. That I knew.”
As I read the book, my respect for Chast grew exponentially. I don’t know if I could have stayed by my mother’s side through everything Chast did (I never had the chance to find out, my mother died when she was just sixty-six), but Chast remained steadfastly by her mother’s side. Not only that, she recorded the relationship in such a stirring and personal way that she paid a permanent and loving tribute to her mother, who she was and what she believed in. And along the way she gave me a look at what might have been.
It’s hard to convey the true beauty of this book through snippets and quotes (I can’t include copies of Chast’s cartoons in this review, but you can get a look at them here on her website). Chast is funny, poignant, sincere, honest and heartfelt about the indignities of aging—from convincing her parents to talk to elder attorneys, to moving them into institutional care, being by their sides through physical infirmities, and ultimately death. It is impossible to read without feeling the heartbreak and frustration that palpably come through Chast’s cartoons and dark humor.
Can’t We Talk is possibly the best and certainly the most original memoir I’ve ever read, its themes universal—who of us will not someday help an aging parent or some day be an aging parent ourselves? Chast’s extraordinary work of art is not to be missed.
Have you read Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? We’d love to hear what you think!