Book Review, “The Hero of This Book,” by Elizabeth McCracken

McCracken layers in quirky facts: Her narrator’s mother had unusually sized feet (“My feet are square,” she sometimes said), was vain about her jet-black hair, terrible with money. These details accumulate to create a full portrait of a complex woman who didn’t approve of Barbie dolls, bagels cut in half, tutus on small girls or fiction written specifically for young adults (“She believed they should be reading William Saroyan”). She would tell her cats she loved them but she would never say the phrase to her daughter, who nonetheless knew that of course she did.

“You never told me that your mother was a cripple,” a seventh-grade friend says to the girl. And the girl replies, shocked, “You never told me that your mother was fat.” She explains, “I didn’t mean it unkindly,” but “the point was that neither of us had described our mother’s body to the other.”

In this way, McCracken deftly evokes how so many of us feel about our mothers: that they are just there, and always there, and that any intimation that they were not always there or weren’t ever just as they are is an affront to the primacy of their connection to their child. Many children will never forget the moment they realized that their mother was a separate human being, who made mistakes and had faults and foibles all their own, separate from their own selves. This existential shock reverberates throughout McCracken’s book, coupled with the shock of that mother no longer being there.

The parents verge on being hoarders, living in a firetrap of “garbage, luggage and inherited love letters, cats.” McCracken writes, “For a long time my parents got rid of nothing.” While the daughter is in London, her parents’ house is on the market, beset by the realities of death: realtors, cleaners and estate-sale dealers. She has tried to clear away some of the chaos before. Once, she found waffle irons in triplicate and a three-year-old piece of cheese in the back of the refrigerator. Her mother keeps all the waffle irons and insists the expiration date is a “printer’s error.” The dirt in the house is so thick, the daughter scrubs off layers of waxy cleaning substances, then blackness and filth, only to discover coins buried underneath, an archaeological find. It feels like unearthing clues to her parents’ deepest selves, so intimate readers may almost want to avert their eyes.

In the penultimate chapter, McCracken gives us a flurry of snapshots (akin, I suppose, to the flashing of one’s life before the moment of death): Her narrator’s mother ate five lobsters one memorable day in Maine; she loved goats; she’d take a boiled, frozen chicken leg in her purse to work so she could discard it without guilt if alternate lunch plans arose; she thought organized sports were meaningless and wasteful; she loved clothes and haggling in antique stores. In this vivid composition, McCracken paints the final layer of the portrait of the mother she has so painstakingly drawn in the preceding pages.