The Almost Moon


June 14, 2010

Author: Alice Sebold

Title: The Almost Moon

Genre: Psychological Fiction

Publication Date: 2007

Geographical Setting: Pennsylvania

Time Period: Present with reflections on the past

Plot Summary: Helen Knightly is the 49 year-old divorced mother of two grown daughters. She has been divorced for twenty years and is a professional art class model. She lives in a small town in Pennsylvania where she grew up. Helen is an only child and the primary caretaker for her 88 year-old mother, Claire, who still lives in the house in which Helen grew up. The story begins with Helen’s admission (very matter-of-factly) of having killed her mother. She believes that the dementia her mother suffered revealed the core of the real person and that her mother’s core was “rotten like the brackish water at the bottom of a week’s old vase of flowers.” Helen continues with a brief reminiscence of how her mother was beautiful when Helen’s dad met her. Within the first chapter, the reader becomes privy to the details leading up to Claire’s demise, and the act itself – suffocation at the hands of her daughter. Helen had always had a love/hate relationship with her mother. Even while growing up, she experienced nightmares about killing her mother. Claire suffered from mental illness that was compounded by agoraphobia. Helen and her dad had code phrases when dealing with especially difficult aspects of Claire’s illness – “it’s a hard day” and “it’s a good day” would say it all for what Helen could expect to deal with on any particular day. As Helen wends deeper into her story, the reader discovers that the murderous deed was not done out of hate, but rather out of frustration with, and ultimately love for her mother. Helen knew it would torture Claire unbearably to be moved from her home and sanctuary, her fortress of protection from the outside world to a hospice. She wanted to spare her mother any more pain and torture. Helen went so far as to carefully and tenderly wash Claire’s body before placing it in the basement freezer (where police later found it).
Helen moves back and forth in time, recalling memories of her past and circumstances in the present. Her father committed suicide when Helen was a teenager, and when he was alive, he would leave home for long periods of time as a coping mechanism for Claire’s illness. This left Helen alone to deal with Claire. She recalls times with her ex-husband and she called him for help after killing her mother. He immediately hops a plane and comes to Helen’s aid. The reader becomes “intimate” with Helen’s feelings about her family and friends and her past experiences. All the while, Helen is struggling with how she should handle the situation. She finally arrives at a decision, taking into account the emotional needs of her family and friends.

Subject Headings: matricide, mentally ill women, mother and adult daughter, middle-aged women, divorced women, mothers – death, detachment (psychology), family relationships, murder, childhood innocence (concept), mother and daughter, parent and child, senior women, and psychological fiction.

Appeal Terms: disturbing, emotional, empathetic, probing, reflective, vexing, warped, sobering, bittersweet, gloomy, melancholy, searching, and thought provoking.

Three terms that best describe this book: emotional, disturbing, and reflective.

Relevant Fiction Works and Authors:

The doctor’s daughter : a novel by Hilma Wolitzer portrays a woman who must come to terms with her personal past and present, and her own family history.

Crazy as chocolate : a novel by Elisabeth Hyde tells the story of two sisters whose mother had battled with depression and mental illness for most of her life, finally committed suicide at age 41. Sibling and parent/child relationships are explored.

Mercy by Jodi Picoult deals with the subject of euthanasia and its effects on family. Family relationships are explored within immediate and extended family.

Relevant Non-fiction Works and Authors:

The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships by Harriet Lerner covers interpersonal relationships, women’s psychology, self-help in anger management, anger in family relationships, and self-help in women’s personal growth & happiness.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is an autobiographical portrait of marriage and motherhood. Didion gives her account of personal struggles with life, death, illness, sanity, and grief.

Woman’s inhumanity to woman by Phyllis Chesler deals with indirect aggression among girls and teenagers; mother-daughter relationships in fairy tale, myth, and Greek tragedy; gives psychoanalytic views of the mother-daughter relationship; sisters and the search for best friends; women in the workplace; and women in groups. It discusses the “good enough” mother and her persecution of the “good enough” daughter and the psychological ethics involved in women’s issues.


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