Growing up, Roz Chast knew her family was a little different from the other families in her Brooklyn neighborhood. Her parents were much older than all the other children’s parents. Her grandparents lived in much hardship in Russia before immigrating to New York, so Chast’s parents were a always little strange and old-fashioned; she couldn’t wait to grow up and get out of there. As an adult, she found much success as a New Yorker cartoonist, and as time passed, she pointedly stayed away from her quirky parents and childhood home.
Her parents’ advancing age changed everything. Though they were in denial about the inevitable health issues that come with age (they were in their 90s), Chast could clearly see that it was probably time to have The Talk and make plans in the event that they needed special care. She’s immediately shot down by her mother, an argumentative and domineering woman who has taken control of situations all her life: she announces that she and her husband will live to be 100, and that’s that. Her father is the complete opposite: he’s becoming increasingly senile and has always acquiesced to his wife’s orders; having The Talk is just too overwhelming to think about.
And so begins a complicated, painful few years filled with worry and stress over her parents’ decline. Chast charts all of it in her graphic memoir, occasionally supplementing her colorful artwork with personal photographs from the past. Though the book is sprinkled with some unexpected humor, it’s mostly a long hard look at what happens when loved ones age and become more dependent on others for basic necessities. She looks back on these years as a daughter trying to cope with this huge responsibility, even though she has a tenuous relationship with them. Chast explores the stress and guilt over finances and her decision to put her parents in “A Place” (an assisted living residence), rather than take care of them herself. She also tries to view the experiences through the eyes of her parents. Her father becomes increasingly senile and has panic attacks over the changes to his longtime routines, while her mother clearly still has her mental faculties and stubborn streak; it’s her body that continues to betray her.
Chast’s memoir a beautifully rendered recounting of something most people will experience at some point in their lives; I haven’t gone through this with my own parents, but I witnessed it happen with my grandparents. Though the Chast family dynamic is probably more dysfunctional than many other families, the emotions that she captures ring bittersweet and true.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? was released in May 2014 by Bloomsbury USA. The book was a finalist for a 2014 National Book Award.