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The Almost Moon    by Alice Sebold order for
Almost Moon
by Alice Sebold
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Helen Knightly had always had a difficult relationship with her mother, Clair. Before she was old enough to leave home for college, she would fantasize about cutting her mother into pieces, and the more we learn about Clair, the more we can understand the despair of the child that drove her to those fantasies. The beautiful and self-absorbed mother used her husband and daughter to feed her own needs. As Clair slipped into mental illness that kept her locked safely inside her own house, her husband and daughter both struggled to escape.

The family in The Almost Moon defines the term dysfunctional. While Helen is growing up, her father, Daniel, manages to provide her with the warmth and love that she never gets from her mother, but his own despair becomes intolerable after Helen leaves. His depression seems to precede Clair's agoraphobia, but as the years pass, the parents both seem trapped in a downward spiral, with Helen caught in the middle. We learn about this family history after the precipitating event that begins the story.

Daniel has died, Clair has become old and forgetful, but just as mean and demanding as ever, and Helen has had the responsibility of caring for her mother for many years. They live near each other, but far enough apart to give Helen the illusion of having a life of her own. Neighbors also help her mother and watch out for her, calling Helen when there's a problem they can't deal with. Meanwhile, her own daughters grown, Helen continues her job as an artists' model at the nearby university, a job hauntingly similar to her mother's former career as a photographer's lingerie model.

As the story begins, Helen has been called by a neighbor who Clair is accusing of stealing from her. Once Helen arrives, the neighbor tells her that her mother shouldn't be living alone any more, and the inference is that she needs to be placed in a home. The neighbor leaves mother and daughter alone, the mother loses control of her bowels, and while Helen tries to help her get cleaned up, the mother continues to yell and accuse the absent neighbor. Suddenly Helen snaps and kills the helpless old woman who is giving her such a hard time.

As Helen begins to try to take control of her life for a change and really comprehend what she's done, we learn not only about her past and her family. We come to know Helen and how growing up in her messed up family affected her, and we watch her, having done the unforgivable, begin to change and to understand herself in new ways. The real irony in the whole situation is that Clair would have been miserable if Helen had made the acceptable response to her mother's decline and had her placed in a home. Death, even by her daughter's hand, would surely have been preferable.

This novel is hard to put down. We want to know how Helen will extricate herself from this situation, if, indeed, she can. We want to know how she got to the point where she was capable of matricide, and, in the end, we're not disappointed.

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