Book of the Week/Free Press Book Review 8/23/11

Though I read and reviewed The Memory Palace hardcover version earlier this year, I couldn’t pass up reviewing the paperback version released this month. Nor did my opinion of this book change, no matter what cover the book was.

Mira Bartók’s memoir is not a run of the mill whining of “my life was lousy because my parents were mentally ill/alcoholics/abusive,” but a detailed yet poignant story of living among the chaos that was her mother, Norma Herr, a brilliant woman plagued for many years by schizophrenia.

Bartok discusses in detail how Norma was a child prodigy who seemed destined for greatness until the first signs of her mental illness became apparent at the age of nineteen. As Norma’s mental state deteriorated, she calls her daughters incessantly, shows up at their jobs and residences, and threaten suicide if Myra and her sister, Rachel, didn’t come back home with her.

A traumatic incident involving Norma compelled her daughters to change their names to avoid further embarrassing contact from their mother. Rachel Herr becomes Natalia Singer and Myra Herr becomes Mira Bartók (the last name taken after the Hungarian composer and pianist Béla Bartók).

While Ms. Bartók recovers from an injury sustained in a traumatic automobile accident, she had to once again learn to read, paint, and other tasks we often take for granted. As part of building her own “memory palace”, Ms. Bartók attempts to reach out to Norma, who had become homeless and was living in a shelter before developing a terminal illness.

Once it’s clear Norma is dying, Ms.Bartók and sister Natalia have an unlikely, yet touching, reconciliation with the mother they had taken great effort to cut from their lives years earlier when Norma’s mental state became too much for either to handle. Through the journey to learn about her mother’s life, Ms. Bartók discovers several of Norma’s mementos – among them seventeen keys inside a sock.

The Memory Palace is a beautiful story of mother-daughter bonds, which at times, brought tears to my eyes. There were many instances that touched me as I read this book. It’s a wonderful memoir which speaks from the heart without the ubiquitous sugar coating found in most topics of its kind. The Memory Palace is not a smooth road to travel, but this amazing memoir is one example that even in the worst of circumstances, reconciling with those we’d pushed away is the key in moving forward with our own lives.

Rating: 5.0/5.0