After reading The Pursuit of Memory by Joseph Jebelli, a nonfiction title about the research and treatment development of Alzheimer’s Disease, I wanted to find a good novel to go with it. What luck for me that Rachel Khong’s delightful Goodbye, Vitamin came out last year. (It is also on the 2018 Tournament of Books shortlist.)
Ruth is still getting over a breakup with her fiancé when her mother asks her to come home for a year to help out with her father who is suffering from the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, and has recently been let go from his job as a university professor.
It was grotesque, the way I kept trying to save that relationship. Like trying to tuck an elephant into pants.
Her father is upset about losing his job, and in addition to the confusion related to Alzheimer’s, is not the easiest person to live with right now. Despite the increase in troubling episodes, there is still a lot of clarity to his days. It’s unpredictable and upsetting, but not yet entirely depressing.
When Ruth agrees to stay home for a year, she hadn’t foreseen how rewarding it would be. And neither do we, at first. The rewards of friends and family gradually creep into the story, almost undetectable.
Lately I’m more forgiving. I used to be very quick to judge the old men who don’t know that when you walk past them on the sidewalk where they’re sweeping leaves, they should stop sweeping. But now it occurs to me that maybe these old men have maladies – diseases that affect their manners – and should be pardoned.
What I loved:
- The book is written in the form of journal entries over the course of the year that Ruth is home. Her voice is fresh and funny, and some of the events that take place are absurd. For example, she takes an empty tomato can to the garbage in the park so her mother doesn’t know she used it.
- I also enjoyed all her “wonderings” – things that she wonders about that have little to do with the plot, but everything to do with her character. For example, she wonders what happens to all the mice that get experimented on. And she can’t stop searching the internet for “feral goldfish”. (Do it! I had no idea.) And…
I shake the sand that’s collected on the welcome mat and wonder if the saying “To wear out one’s welcome” came about because of the mats. Did somebody visit somebody else so often that the ‘Welcome’ actually faded? Then I wonder if everyone who has shaken a mat has also wondered this.
A long time ago I stopped wondering why there were so many crazy people. What surprises me now is that there are so many sane ones.
- Goodbye, Vitamin is deceivingly quick and easy to read. But it is exactly this that makes you realize the skill that must have gone into achieving this.
- Ruth’s mother goes on strike from housekeeping and cooking. She gets rid of her pots and pans that may contain aluminum, and stops cooking meals. She basically lets Ruth pick up the slack, while she reads or takes up other interesting pursuits.
- Ruth and her mother try everything they’ve read about diet and slowing down the disease. From canteloupe smoothies to jellyfish supplements to lots and lots of cruciferous vegetables. I would probably do the same thing.
- Ruth’s father leaves notes around for her to read, taken in the days when she was young. The notes are endearing, and they give us a deeper sense of the bond she has with her father. A sample…
Today you asked me where metal comes from. You asked me what flavor are germs. You were distressed because your pair of gloves had gone missing. When I asked you for a description, you said: they are sort of shaped like my hands.
- I don’t know if it’s the format or the quality of writing, but for such a short book, the relationships between the family members are complex. There are no easy answers or solutions to their differences, yet the love they have for each other comes through in their actions.
- For a book about Alzheimer’s, there is so much joy.
- The effort that Ruth, along with students of her father’s, go to get him back into the classroom and doing what he loves to do best – teaching – is heart-warming, heart-breaking and comical all at once. Kind of like this book.
You mentioned that there were some things on your mind, but lately you were having trouble getting to them – accessing them. You had the feeling that all the thoughts were in a box covered in tape, and the trouble was there was too much tape, and the trouble was you didn’t have the proper tools to access them – no scissors and no knife – and it was a lot of trouble – every day it was new trouble – trying to find the end of the tape.
Have you read this? Do you have recommendations for books about memory loss or Alzheimer’s?