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Thursday, June 3, 2010 01:39 am

Late-in-life journey

A novel of rejuvenation in old age

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Leslie Larson
PHOTO BY CARLA TRUJILLO

In an old Cher movie called Moonstruck, Olympia Dukakis is talking to her 40-plus-year-old daughter (Cher) about getting married and having a baby. Cher protests that she’s too old for a baby. Olympia says, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Yet most of us think of old age as a time of reflection rather than learning, and a time for getting ready to die instead of figuring out how to live. In truth, aging is not for the faint of heart, but Leslie Larson’s new novel reminds us that story-worthy things can still happen.

Breaking Out of Bedlam is a novel about an overweight 82-year-old widow named Cora Sledge whose daughter visits and finds dirty dishes in the bathtub (the kitchen sink is clogged), a leak in the roof and several housekeeping shortfalls. Cora is sitting in front of the television looking a bit slovenly, with an open bag of Fritos in her lap. Her ashtray is full, and she has a cigarette going. All of Cora’s life, her husband, who loved her fiercely, took care of everything, so after his death, she is lost. But she isn’t distressed with the state of things in her home because she still has plenty of pills to keep her comfortable. Nevertheless her daughter and two sons arrange for Cora to move into an assisted living home called Palisades; they rent out Cora’s house and find someone to take her dog. Cora is livid. But even though she can be stubborn and crass, with her poor health she’s stuck. Then one day her granddaughter brings her a blank journal and a purple pen that’s soft, made especially for a writer with arthritis. Cora grudgingly starts to write. And what follows is a humorous description of the people and events at the “home” and the bittersweet (yet unsentimental) story of Cora’s own life.

Breaking Out of Bedlam by Leslie Larson. Crown/Shaye Areheart Books, 2010. Hardcover, 320 pages. $24.
Palisades is little more than a concrete bunker with small rooms for parking the elderly. There Cora deals with all the sights and smells that accompany such places, including resident feuds and bad food. She describes the hallway at dinner time as where “the walkers and wheelchairs make a slow-motion stampede for the dining room.” Cora is both the victim and the suspect in a series of thefts, and her naiveté contributes to mistakes that add a kind of irony as readers see things that Cora isn’t ready to see. She befriends a man who makes big promises. The day she tells her daughter that she’s fallen in love and is going to get married and move home, things start happening fast.

Breaking out of Bedlam will resonate with baby-boomers because it’s about the things that scare us all as we approach old age: that we’ll end up powerless, helpless, loveless and alone. But Cora’s heartache, past and present, is tempered by her sense of humor and her rough exterior. Her dry wit eclipses deep feelings of pain and regret about the past, yet she doesn’t hide her anger about the present. Sometimes anger can be just the thing we need. In Cora’s case, she turns her anger into rejuvenation. She loses weight, breathes easier, walks farther and overcomes her dependence on the pills. Her goal from the day she moves in to Palisades is to get out and return to her home and her dog. But a lot of things stand in her way. Cora Sledge’s late-in-life journey reminds us that “it ain’t over till it’s over.”

Martha Miller’s latest novel, Retirement Plan, about two old ladies who can’t make ends meet on their Social Security and decide to become hired killers, has recently been accepted for publication. Learn more on her website www.marthamiller.net.

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