There was no mystery to why she had fallen for him; the mystery was why she had continued with him despite all the fearsome evidence, what the better part of her knew almost from the beginning.
(from The Storm at the Door, page 54 in the ARC; finished version may be different)
The Storm at the Door is a fictional account of author Stefan Merrill Block’s grandparents, their tumultuous marriage, and the manic depression that sent his grandfather to a psychiatric facility in 1962. Block opens the novel in 1989 with Katharine burning the things her husband had written during his stay at Mayflower Hospital, based on the famous McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. The book then moves farther into the past, showing how Frederick’s wild behavior at a cocktail party prompts the state police to take him to Mayflower, and Katharine recounts the drinking, affairs, and erratic behavior that lead her to believe he needs help.
The Storm at the Door is divided into sections that alternate between Katharine’s and Frederick’s stories. Katharine is forced to take care of their four daughters and a household alone, and she must consider tough decisions as the money runs out and her father urges her to transfer Frederick to a state hospital. She also questions why she didn’t end her marriage at the first sign of trouble many years before and deals with not having a true friend to help her cope.
Block also details Frederick’s psychiatric treatment and the goings on at Mayflower, where Frederick mingles with the real-life poet Robert Lowell (a former U.S. Poet Laureate), whose work is featured a few times in the book. He even gets into the mind of Dr. Canon, the psychiatrist in chief, who takes a special interest in Frederick as he prepares some case studies for publication and transforms Mayflower into a facility with a rigid routine and a focus on socialization. It is uncertain whether Frederick’s treatment is working, as he concentrates on freedom and doing what he needs to do to get the doctor’s permission to leave, and something he witnesses by accident causes him to fear permanent imprisonment.
The Storm at the Door is about mental illnesses and its impact on marriage and family. Block writes about the sadness and the tragedy that Frederick experiences and witnesses while at Mayflower and his feelings of despair when it seems he will never be released. He also writes about Katharine’s own feelings of imprisonment, and while her story isn’t as interesting as Frederick’s, it is just as important.
I must admit that I wasn’t “wowed” by this book, and I actually almost gave up on it before I was halfway through. Block’s writing is very good, and his descriptions really brought Mayflower and its staff and patients to life. He captures the emotions of all that Katharine and Frederick go through without melodrama, but the narrative is mostly internal and descriptive, and there is very little dialogue. I think that made the story slow for me, but I kept going because I sensed that something dramatic would occur, and because the writing was good, I told myself to be patient.
Block’s fascinating descriptions of the other patients kept me interested when I felt detached from Katharine and Frederick. I was captivated by the story of Professor Schultz, a Lithuanian Jew who escaped the Holocaust when he came to America for a position at Harvard, but the war tore his life apart while he was enduring his first stay at Mayflower. Schultz studied linguistics, and he spends his days at Mayflower writing down a language that only he can hear — the true names of people, objects, and actions. Honestly, his tragic story could be a novel on its own!
I applaud Block for trying to piece together his family’s history because he does it in a way that doesn’t sugarcoat events or put anyone on a pedestal. Although I thought it was just an average read, The Storm at the Door is an interesting study of mental illness from different points of view and touches upon madness, creativity, and love.
Courtesy of the publisher, I am offering a copy of The Storm at the Door to my readers. To enter, please leave a comment with your e-mail address and tell me what intrigues you about this novel. Because the publisher is shipping the book, this giveaway is open to readers with addresses in the U.S. and Canada only. You have until Sunday, June 26, 2011, at 11:59 pm EST to enter.
**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**
© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.