A Family's Bittersweet Tale of Love and Loss is a Book Sense Pick

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The title of Elisabeth Hyde's new work of fiction from Macadam/Cage, Crazy as Chocolate, was taken from poet Anne Sexton's line, "Even crazy, I'm as nice as a chocolate bar." Izzy (née Isabel) narrates this tale of her family, alternating past and present.

Then: It was 28 years ago when her crazy but sweet mother, Mimi,committed suicide on her 41st birthday, leaving 13-year-old Izzy, 15-year-old Ellie, and Hugh, her mother's devoted, and ineffectual, husband.

Now: Izzy is turning 41, entering what she has termed "virgin time." Her father, sister, seven-year-old niece, and husband have assembled at her Colorado home attempting to make this difficult transition easier, an impossibility at best. Her traumatic memories along with her family's current difficulties threaten to overwhelm the rational Izzy.

Hyde doesn't attempt to conceal the fact of the mother's suicide at the outset. No explanation exists that will satisfy Izzy and her family, or allay their guilt. The book has no single stunning revelation -- but is composed of thousands of small revelations about the nature of family and of love.

Elisabeth Hyde grew up in New Hampshire. She trained as a lawyer but decided against practicing law. In 1986, she took time off and wrote her first novel, Her Native Colors (Delacorte). Her second novel, Monoosook Valley (Delta), was published in 1989. She has studied with John Irving at the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, and has been published in Mademoiselle, McCall's, and Redbook. She lives with her family in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Boulder, Colorado, and teaches creative writing to elementary students through an artist-in-residence program. Crazy as Chocolate is a selection of the 2002 May/June Book Sense 76 list.

BTW: You describe Mimi as having trouble distinguishing "truth, exaggeration, and embellishment." Mostly, she was a spectacular liar. She told the school principal that her homicidal brother had threatened to kidnap her children; she told her mother to delay her visit because she was required to photograph the mayor; and told her children that the man she saw every Tuesday and Friday was not a doctor, but a friend. She told various people that she had cancer, tuberculosis, frostbite, and hypothermia. Are you an equally good liar, or is this story mostly biographical?

EH: My mother is 76, quite alive and mentally healthy. She lives in New Hampshire. No one close to me has ever committed suicide. My experiences with my own children -- a son, now 15, and twin daughters, now 13 -- when I had three under three led me to consider how a mother could go off the deep end. I cannot understand how a mother can leave her children like [Mimi did].

BTW: Had Mimi's fate been sealed when you began writing the book?

EH: Yes. I knew that I wanted to reveal the fact of her suicide within the first chapter. I had recently read The Anna Papers by Ellen Gilchrist, and I love the way you see this woman walking into the sea and you get a few clues as to why, but not the complete picture. That compels you to read on.

BTW: Mimi is a fantastic amalgam of acute mental illness, charm, and affection. She washed out cuts with Clorox, fumigated the house with toxic chemicals, and, occasionally, had the children scrub their hands with Comet and soak their feet in hydrogen peroxide. She pushed her beloved car off a cliff after it reached 100,000 miles and broke down abruptly.

EH: Mimi was first a minor character in a short story I wrote 10 years ago. Then, she was a simple hypochondriac, but, as I realized she needed center stage in a novel, she had to be a lot crazier. I always assumed that she would end badly.

BTW: What was your own mother's reaction to the book?

EH: I was afraid of her reading it. She really liked it and was very pleased with the ending. My father just read it and was really touched by it.

BTW: The story is very dark but leavened with light touches. Humor within typical family situations makes the pain more tolerable.

EH: I'm so glad that people are picking up on that. It's important to me that the book not be totally dark.

BTW: What's your next project?

EH: It is a murder mystery titled Rock, Paper, Scissors. Even though it's a very different type of story, all my writing reflects my own interests. It will always be character focused and relationship focused, particularly the mother-daughter relationship. -- Nomi Schwartz