Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Book Review: The Middle Place

The Middle Place The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Several months ago I viewed the youtube video of Kelly Corrigan eloquently reading her essay on women and strength. Moved like many other women, I put her book on my "to read" list.

Corrigan was diagnosed with breast cancer at the very young age of 34, as the mother of two very small children. While she was undergoing aggressive treatment (chemo, surgery, and radiation), her dad was diagnosed with bladder cancer. She writes about her shared cancer journey with her father, combined with her experience of being a mom, wife, sister, and daughter.

I found the book to be compellingly readable and unfailingly honest. It's honest to the point where some of the other reviewers have said they found Corrigan to be annoying and unlikable by the end of the book.

As the youngest of three children and the only daughter, Corrigan was raised as the apple of her father's eye, a golden child who could never do wrong. Her brothers protected her and her father affirmed and encouraged her at every turn. Her desperately close relationship with her father grated on me after awhile, mostly because when it comes to parent/child relationships, I find favoritism patently unfair and conditional. Corrigan adores her father to the point that I felt sorry for her mother, mostly, and also for her husband. She gets upset with her husband for calling his parents so often, while at the same time acknowledging the irony of her annoyance, given her obsession with her dad. When her mom says at one point, "it's up to your father," Corrigan notes that her mom always calls him that and comments "Mabye that's why I sometimes forget to think of him as her husband." She is not ashamed of her unabashed adoration of her father. She kept her name when she got married, not for any feminist reasons, but because she feels part of the Corrigan clan and she likes it when people recognize that she is her father's daughter.

She and her mother set each other off, like many mothers and daughters. This poor woman experienced her only daughter and her husband having cancer IN THE SAME YEAR. I didn't read a whole lot of understanding and sympathy into Corrigan's descriptions of her mom. Corrigan's mom is not as effusive or enthusiastic as her dad--she's a good Catholic, serious woman, and perhaps her daughter's adoration of her dad doesn't make her feel slighted. It must not, judging from the fact her mom sneaks into the local Borders to prominently display Corrigan's books at the front of the store. (See video with Corrigan talking about her mom, below.)

Looking back on the book, I was surprised that Corrigan didn't talk more about her community and her friendships. She begins her cancer journey by sending out an e-mail to her friends, inviting them to a party at the end of treatment. The book ends with that party. However, what happened to her friends in between? Where were they? Did she have any women supporting her, as she implies in her youtube video? They were largely absent from this memoir.

In spite of these annoying aspects of the book, it moved me and made me cry on several occasions. I loved her honesty, even if it didn't always make her look good. I could so relate to her anger at the doctor's insensitivity, when she is told that the hormone treatment she has to have will make it impossible for her to have more children...and when she is upset, he says "You do have two beautiful girls." That is so not the point. Not if you've always dreamed of having four children.

And then there is the time when Corrigan and her family are hanging out with friends, and two of the men are going on and on about doing triathalons and how amazing their bodies are. Corrigan shuts their conversation down by saying "God, I wish I agreed with you. My experiences lately have taught me the exact opposite...I actually sort of resent my body." Later she apologizes to her husband, who fortunately tells her that the guys could use a little reality. I recall being at a women's group meeting after my first miscarriage at nearly 12 weeks. Two of them were pregnant, and they went on ad nauseum about pregnancy and how miserable they were. I left the house in tears and could not tell them how upset I was until weeks later. They were completely insensitive to what I was going through. How hard can that be?

Corrigan is unflinchingly honest, and seems to realize that the way she reacts to some situations in her life can be annoying to others or even childish. When someone has cancer or experiences a loss of any sort, it gives that person the right to behave any damn way they want to. If she wants to act childish and petty at times, it's her perogative. The fact that she wrote eloquently about her inner demons and her love for her family shows her maturity and growth.

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