My book club's most recent selection was The Leisure Seeker, by Michael Zadoorian. This is not a book that I would have ever picked up on my own - it's about two old people going on a road trip. I have nothing against the elderly or extended car rides, but it just didn't sound interesting. That's one more point in favor of the book club - my horizons can always use a good broadening.
That said, I loved this book. It was told from the point of view of an old lady with lots and lots of cancer inside her. Her husband has Alzheimers. So they go on a road trip, taking what's left of Route 66 to Disneyland. They've been together a long time, and in their current fragile states, rely on each other even more. The wife is old, overweight, and in pain, so she relies on her husband for mobility and support. He doesn't know where he is a lot of the time, not to mention how he got there or what year it is or that his baby daughter is now middle-aged. The one thing that he consistently knows is that his wife is his anchor.
Since it is told from her point of view, we get a lot of her frustrations of dealing with him. He wanders off once, and she has to bum a ride with a complete stranger to go looking for him. He will ask her the same question every two minutes, forgetting that he asked her before. He asks about friends who died many years ago, and she has to choose between lying to him or breaking the awful news to him over and over again. He has forgotten how to do many things.
Once, when she is particularly annoyed, the wife thinks to herself that he's just faking it out of laziness. It's a cold and cruel thought, but I can't say that I wouldn't have had the same one in her position. Often I've thought that someone was doing something to me, when really they were just acting the way they thought best, with no thought on how it would affect me. Lucy Grealy once wrote, "Part of the job of being human is to consistently underestimate our effect on other people."
All the while the wife is worrying and looking out for him and sometimes sniping at him, her love for him is never uncertain to the reader. She craves and cherishes his few and fleeting moments of lucidity. (One particularly heartbreaking scene was when he was his old self, talking over some of his memories while she was in incredible pain from her sickness. The conversation and the discomfort battled for her attention; she remarked that when you are old, there are no perfect moments.) But if you only saw her sniping at him or suspecting him of faking dementia, you might think she was an awful mean old woman who didn't love this old man at all.
Love makes us stick with somebody even when they make us miserable. There is this idea that love is supposed to make us happy, and the disconnect from that idea and the reality of loving an actual, fully-formed person sometimes makes the hard times worse. We think it's not supposed to be that way. Love, of course, does not care what it's supposed to be. It just is, and if we don't like it, I guess we can opt out.
Some women in the book club absolutely hated this book. Of the ones who really despised it, most of them were currently or had previously dealt with elderly relatives. One woman was apparently having a hard time with her mother; her main complaint with the book was that it barely said anything about the children of these renegade old people (in fact, it portrayed them as whiny and interfering). She didn't talk much about her mom or the situation, but what she said was laced with bile. You would think that she hated her mother. But I don't think she did. She probably loves her mother as much as any sailor with a Mom tattoo. It's just complicated. Because we're complicated, and the people we love are complicated, and so love is complicated.
Probably better than the alternative, though.