three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
39-Mar-Apr-2009
By: 
Robin Romm
user_rating: 
0

A Memoir of Three Weeks

A-The Mercy PapersThe Mercy Papers is Robin Romm’s first nonfiction effort. She previously published two collections of short fiction, The Mother Garden and The Tilt.

The Topic: When 56-year-old Jackie Romm, a vibrant civil-rights lawyer, succumbs to breast cancer, it is the realization of a young daughter’s worst fear. In The Mercy Papers (named after the dog who helps Robin Romm through the loss of her mother; the narrative itself deals with little in the way of mercy), the author fires back with a focused, irreverent diatribe on death—including her occasional anger toward those who least deserve it, including her boyfriend, her father, a kitten, the hospice nurse. "Maybe the problem is God, the lack of God, the lack of mercy, of grace," Romm writes, refusing to give her mother permission to die. The result is a deeply felt narrative calling into question everything we know about the process of dying and rethinking how we handle our greatest losses.
Scribner. 213 pages. $22. ISBN: 1416567887

Entertainment Weekly 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Mercy Papers, the vitriol-laced journal she kept during the three weeks before her mother died, captures all the fear and sadness you might expect from a heartbroken 28-year-old—but it’s her gusting, boiling anger that rattles the page. … There are countless memoirs about death and overcoming grief, but Romm’s sheer firepower sets hers apart, capturing all the raw messiness behind her agony." Tina Jordan

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"In Romm’s hands, anger becomes an instrument for pursuing truth, an extremely effective crowbar with which to pry back nicety and expose ‘something unfettered, something darker.’ Often, it’s from this unfettered darkness that the author delivers her best lines, the words strung together with a kind of plain-mouthed beauty." Leah Hager Cohen

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"For all the hard-won art in Romm’s truth-telling, she shares the limitations of memoir—it is only about self. The same constraints framed Joan Didion, writing about new widowhood in The Year of Magical Thinking, and it can leave the reader pondering the disconnectedness of it all." Karen R. Long

Hartford Courant 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Through introspective flashbacks and unflinching description, Robin pours out her own anger and agony as she witnesses her mother’s inexorable decline. … Her descriptions of her querulous paternal grandfather, with his yelping, high-pitched voice and penchant for hiding money, add some humor—albeit black—to the sadness." Carole Goldberg

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This slim, sad, searing memoir is no easy read. … At the same time, with artfulness, candor and unexpected but welcome wit, Romm tells their mother/daughter story through nine years of flashbacks since Jackie’s diagnosis at 46, when Romm was 19." Elizabeth Fishel

Critical Summary

Robin Romm is no stranger to documenting loss, as her two collections of short fiction attest. Although she didn’t set out to document the last weeks of her mother’s life for publication, The Mercy Papers distills the emotion of those earlier stories of loss into one highly personal episode. Romm is an adept guide who doesn’t hesitate to expose the raw nerve. Her memoir treads a fine line—there is an intense intimacy that can leave the outsider overwhelmed and a bit cold, but there is also a powerful, empowering familiarity to readers who have experienced similar pain and loss. Even with glimmers of humor (particularly relating to her grandfather), The Mercy Papers is a book that can be hard to read—but well worth the effort.