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What We’re Reading: Being Esther

2014 January 9
by Jessica Radzak

What We're Reading

Being Esther CoverBeing Esther by Miriam Karmel (Milkweed Editions, 2013)

At eight-five years old, Esther Lustig isn’t sure what to think of her life anymore. After a lifetime of creating memories with friends and family, many of those friends, along with her husband, have passed, and her daughter wants to put her in an assisted living facility—Bingoville, as Esther refers to it. The one certainty left in her life is her best friend Lorraine and their system of morning check-in calls to confirm that each has survived the night. Being Esther by Miriam Karmel is a touching novel about how Esther’s life has changed and what it means to grow old.

Aging isn’t what Esther expected, but she’s still alive and she still has her wits about her. Esther is physically slower and achier now, but more importantly, she’s still able to make valid contributions to conversations, when she is allowed. The minute she lapses, either with a longer-than-socially-acceptable pause or a bit of misremembered information, the undisguised harsh judgments begin.

The young couple exchanges a knowing glance. Is there also a hint of triumph in Sophie’s face, the way it opens to Amos, as if to say, I told you she couldn’t stay on track for long. And you were so charmed by her.

Esther has the urge to tell them that growing old is one of the most surprising things that has happened to her. She hadn’t given it any thought. Then one day, she was eighty-five. She is old. Not just old, but an object of derision, pity. Is there any use explaining that she is still herself—albeit a slower, achier, creakier version of the original?

Karmel noted the lack of elderly main characters in fiction during a Q&A at Open Book. Because of this deficiency, Karmel admits in an interview for MinnPost that much of her research came from “just listening to older people talk about what it’s like to be old.”

The issue of people being unwilling to listen to the elderly is addressed throughout the book. Esther’s everyday experiences prove that no one listens to an old person. She even fantasizes about being heard in the grocery store, after the man behind the deli case asks her what she wants.

If she were to tell him, would he believe her? She wants one more morning with Marty beside her in bed. She wants to wake up each morning with a sense of purpose. She wants her daughter to stop pushing brochures on her. She wants her son to straighten up and fly right. She wants to be something other than the object of concerned looks and condescension.

The character most guilty of concerned looks and condescension is Esther’s daughter, Ceely. But Esther and Ceely have had a tumultuous relationship, not untypical of mothers and daughters. Ceely understands that the roles have officially reversed in their relationship, though she is just as unhappy with the situation as Esther is.

She looks at Ceely, her golden child who morphed into an angry teen and then an officious adult. The adolescent rage is gone, but so are the soft contours. If Ceely were a chair, she’d be hard, unyielding. Utilitarian.

And perhaps that’s how one needs to be when dealing with an aging parent. Ceely leaves Esther brochures for Cedar Shores, and she delivers bran cereal with the groceries instead of Esther’s preferred Lucky Charms. She invites her over for Sunday dinner only to hurry her back home once everyone is done. She takes care of Esther as needed, but the one thing she doesn’t do is stop and listen.

Karmel’s research paid off in the realistic details of the book. The strained exchanges between Esther and Ceely are heartwrenching. Anyone who has had to deal with an aging parent will recognize Ceely’s impatience and frustration. And in addition to Esther and Ceely, Karmel has created some memorable, charming characters, from Toots Lustig, Esther’s mother-in-law who is famous for her “chopped-liver swan, a sleight-of-hand extravaganza involving tinfoil, sprigs of parsley, and sliced pimento olives, strategically placed to resemble eyes,” to Buddy Markel, one of the few old friends who’s still around to answer his phone when Esther goes through her address book trying to reconnect with people. He and Esther meet for lunch at the Drake Hotel, and Buddy proves to be an uncomfortable mirror for Esther, as he spends an inordinate amount of time trying to cut a potato chip with a knife and fork.

My only issue with Being Esther is the postscript chapter. It provides a fitting end but wraps things up too neatly after such a wonderfully messy, lifelike story. I loved learning that Karmel, who initially intended for Esther to appear in a short story, admits in her Open Book Q&A that she still vacillates about what she thinks happens to Esther at the definitive yet ambiguous end.

Being Esther celebrates the process of aging and gives an authentic voice to the elderly, a group underrepresented in fiction. The book urges us to be kinder and more attentive to those who have been around longer than we have. They have more to share than we think, we just need to learn to listen.

Have you read any other fiction books that depict people dealing with the aging process? Why might there be, as Karmel indicates, a lack of elderly main characters in fiction?


3 Responses
  1. Liz permalink
    January 10, 2014

    It’s been a couple of years since I read it, but I really enjoyed _Olive Kitteridge_, Elizabeth Strout’s collection of short stories centering on Olive’s relationships and stories in a small Maine town.

    • Jessica Radzak permalink
      January 12, 2014

      I’m so glad you mentioned Olive Kitteridge, Liz. That was the one title that has popped up a few times in my post-Being Esther search for books with an older main character. I’ll have to add that to my reading list. To be honest, I had always heard good things about it, but it never made my reading list in the first place because I kept confusing it with Kit Kittredge, a movie based on an American Girl doll. I’ve always held that against poor Olive Kitteridge, so now I feel I must right that wrong.

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