As We Are Now

As We Are NowAt the end of this short novel by May Sarton, I knew a few things about Caroline Spencer’s time at the Twin Elms rest home. I knew that Caro was miserable there. I knew the care she and other residents received was substandard. But the details of her poor care? Those are fuzzy.

Caro, a 76-year-old retired schoolteacher,  reveals right at the start that she might not be the most reliable narrator:

I am forcing myself to get everything clear in my mind by writing it down so I know where I am at. There is no reality now except what I can sustain inside me. My memory is failing. I have to hang onto every scrap of information I have to keep my sanity, and it is for that purpose that I am keeping a journal. Then if I forget things later, I can always go back and read them here.

In this journal, Caro documents the rough treatment she and other residents receive at Twin Elms, which she calls “a concentration camp for the old.” She has no privacy, few options for entertainment, and hardly anyone to talk to. The food is terrible and the rooms dirty. Her letters are read by the staff before they’re sent, and she wonders whether some that sent to her are withheld. She knows some of her visitors have been turned away.

Even though Caroline admits her mind is failing, the kind of abuse she documents seems so tragically likely that it’s easy to believe her. And when some kind visitors intervene, we receive substantiation that the care is poor. And yet…

Caroline Spencer is a snobby woman, left in the company and care of people she believes are beneath her. She was brought there partly because her snobbery made her sister-in-law miserable. If the only reality she has is in her own mind, how real are the reflections in her journal?

I admit that I am the sort of reader who sees unreliable narrators everywhere. It was not until nearly the end of this book that I really started to doubt Caro’s account. One little contradiction, an accusation that is clearly false, and her whole story was cast into doubt. But should it have been? Would getting one detail wrong, forgetting one fact, make the whole story false? Of course not. But it does show how faulty memory is and how easy it could be to take advantage of someone whose mind is going.

Regardless of which details in Caro’s account are true, her story reveals just how much impact small cruelties—and small kindnesses—can have on a vulnerable person. Rough handling while having your hair washed can feel like torture, not just because it’s painful but because of the indignity of not being able to do it yourself. And a gentle touch and a flower on a breakfast tray become sources of great comfort, so much so that the person who makes these small gestures can become a shining beacon of hope.

This story plays on so many fears about aging and what it’s like to lose control of your body and mind. Caro is a victim of so many forces, and there’s no good way to fight back. She has moments of triumph against all her enemies, but there’s no way for her to achieve a lasting victory, at least not one that would look like victory to most people. But Caro is a woman who fights, and that’s just what she does. Her way may not be sane, but when you’re in her mind, seeing what she sees and feeling what she feels, it makes sense. It feels like a victory.

This the first novel by May Sarton that I’ve read (recommended to me by Thomas), and I loved it. I have her final novel The Education of Harriet Hatfield on my shelf already. (Harriet Hatfield is the name of the cruel caregiver in this novel. Is it the same woman? The plots don’t seem connected, based on the description.) I’m sure I’ll read more and welcome suggestions!

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12 Responses to As We Are Now

  1. I very vaguely recall that I read a May Sarton novel some time ago and liked it a lot. I have been meaning to try another by her! This can be the one — I love even the possibility of an unreliable narrator.

    • Teresa says:

      After writing this, I read a bunch of other reviews and no one else seems to talk about the possibility of Caro getting it wrong. Most reviews focus on the appalling way she’s treated. So now I’m worried that *I’m* the unreliable narrator. But it’s a good book either way–her treatment is appalling, and whatever is going on with her mind makes it worse.

  2. Rohan Maitzen says:

    What a very enticing review! I’ve really liked almost everything I’ve read by May Sarton – which included The Education of Harriet Hatfield. We read her The Small Rom with the Slaves of Golconda a few years ago, and I have also read a couple of her volumes of memoirs. I got interested in her partly because of Carolyn Heilbrun’s interest in her. They both had a fascination with solitude!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m glad to hear you like The Education of Harriet Hatfield. I hadn’t heard of it, but I spotted it at a used book sale and grabbed it because I wanted to read Sarton. I wondered, though, if it was second-tier Sarton, since the title was unfamiliar.

  3. At first I resisted your notion that Caro was an unreliable narrator. I tend to think of unreliable narrators as being wildly unbalanced and/or nefarious. But given recent discussions on The Readers about The Night Guest and more recently about unreliable narrators I am expanding my point of view on the topic. The other thing about As We Are Now is that I think it shows that the unreliability that comes with old age can come and go, but the overall narrative (in this case that Caro got terrible care) is true.

    It has been a while since I’ve read the book, but I believe part of my thought about Caro’s trouble with her sister-in-law was understandable if not justified. Caro had a real, substantive, meaningful, independent life–and more career oriented than most women experienced at that time–and all of that was at odds with the life she had to lead after moving in with her brother and his wife. She didn’t know it could be worse until it did when she was moved to the home. (Am I remembering all of this right?)

    Finally, I have also read The Education of Harriet Hatfield but I had no idea of the name connection with As We Are Now. The two books are so different with the former being primarily sunny and happy. Without going back and reading them both, I have a hard understanding how they could be connected beyond the reuse of the name.

    • Teresa says:

      Yeah, she’s not unreliable in the sense of being deliberately dishonest, but her account isn’t necessarily trustworthy, especially in the details. That’s a good point about how it can come and go, which certainly seemed to be the case here. For me, the really frightening thing about Caro’s situation is the loss of control in nearly all aspects, from how she manages her day-to-day life, who she sees and talks to, and even her own mind and body.

      I agree that her attitude toward her sister-in-law was understandable, given her own change in circumstances, but it was also pretty rude. She acknowledges that herself and feels some regret about it. It got me thinking about what her standards might be at the home, as far as things like the food and such go.

      From the summary, it sure doesn’t sound like The Education of HH is connected, but it’s weird that she reused the name.

  4. Jeane says:

    It’s been so long since I read this book, but I liked it so much I know I’ve read it two or three times. I don’t recall once thinking Caro was unreliable- I guess I just assumed her memory was faulty at times, but not that it was severe enough to question everything she related. Now I wonder how I’ll perceive it when I read it again.

    • Teresa says:

      I think her unreliability was pretty much all due to memory loss, and I assumed the general outline of events was accurate. But, especially toward the end, I think the details were shaky. Once she’d decided on her final course of action, she seemed to want to believe the worst of her caregivers.

  5. With the caveat that you need to be able to handle animal stories, I loved Sarton’s Joanna and Ulysses, if you’re looking for another Sarton. I shall definitely add this one to my list.

    • Teresa says:

      I can definitely handle animal stories. Tragic stories about cats require me to be in an emotionally strong place, but I don’t necessarily avoid them as a rule. So thanks for the suggestion!

  6. I’m not sure I’ve got the same author, but I believe that there was a cult following for “Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing” rather early on, and I think that was a Sarton. It was good enough to read, as I recall, but I always get put off by recommendations from people who are following a cult following that isn’t even from the era we’re living in, so you may be warned by my experience, if you will. The quote in the title, as I’m sure you are probably aware, is from T. S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in which “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each./ I do not think that they will sing for me,” and etc. sea metaphors. The person who recommended it to me was rather older than I and was a follower of the poetical followers of Eliot, and I guess that may account for the book seeming rather dated to me (i.e., my own preconceptions and prejudices). I think that i probably would enjoy better some of the other Sarton books you and your other responders have discussed.

    • Teresa says:

      That is a Sarton book, but it’s not one I think I’ve seen recommended much. I’ll probably try some of her others before getting to this one. It is interesting how the sources of recommendations can affect our perception of particular books.

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