THE STORM AT THE DOOR by Stefan Merrill Block

Book Quote:

“She knows that she does not believe – not really – the stories she tells of Frederick. She knows she does not believe – not really – the opinions of Frederick’s psychiatrists, her relatives, her own family. She knows that she still does not believe that it is as simple as others tell her it ought to be, as she tells herself it ought to be: that she was sane, while Frederick was mad; that she performed the heroic necessary work of saving her family, while, in his mental hospital, Frederick ‘indulged in the escapist writing behavior’ (his psychiatrist’s words) that is now in Katharine’s hands. Sane mad, heroic, dissolute, earnest, deluded: she knows she does not believe – not really – in those simple divisions into which she has spent the last twenty years organizing her past.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (JUL 1, 2011)

Stefan Merrill Block has written a novel so irrepressibly beautiful and poetic that it left me stunned. The Storm at the Door is based on the life of his grandparents, Frederick and Katharine. Partly imagined and partly based on fact, this is the story of a troubled family dealing with mental illness, secrets, and denial. It is also about the horror and the power of a psychiatric hospital, along with the myriad patients who have enacted their trust in this institution.

Frederick and Katharine met on the cusp of World War II and were married six months later. Theirs was a love affair based mostly on correspondence and the desperation of wartime. For some unknown reason, Frederick does not finish out his service and is placed in a naval hospital. When he is released he looks like a victim of starvation. The reasons for these events are never truly clear to Katharine.

Frederick is charismatic and the life of the party. He is also rowdy and loves his bourbon. He begins to be unfaithful to Katharine early on in their marriage. He disappears for days at a time and comes home promising to change and be a better man and husband. He has lots of plans and aspirations, none of which seem to come to fruition. He cannot hold down a job for long although he has an MBA from Harvard. When he drinks, which he seems to do to self-medicate, he is inappropriate but he is usually able to steer clear of getting into all-out trouble. Katharine’s goal in life is to please others and she constantly and consistently forgives Frederick his transgressions.

One auspicious evening in 1962, Frederick drinks at least five bourbons and leaves the party they are at, borrowing a friend’s raincoat. He is naked underneath. He walks up to the nearest road and flashes either his rump or his genitals to oncoming traffic. Most of the cars just peer and go on. However, two old ladies call the police and Frederick is handcuffed and taken to jail. He has the option of prison or entering a psychiatric hospital. Katharine, with the help of her friends and relatives, decides to commit him to Mayflower Hospital , a fictional hospital based on the actual McClean Hospital in Massachusetts. McClean has been a temporary shelter for the poet Robert Lowell, singer James Taylor, and mathematician John Nash. It is supposedly the best psychiatric hospital in the country. What Katharine and Frederick don’t realize, however, is that Frederick’s hospitalization is not strictly voluntary. He is to remain at Mayflower until the chief psychiatrist sees fit to release him.

When Frederick first enters the hospital, it is very laid back and the patients have privileges and room to move – physically and psychically. There are cows in the pasture and the setting is idyllic, designed by the great architect Frederick Law Olmsted on 65 beautiful acres. Frederick has been diagnosed with manic depression and the diagnosis appears to be quite accurate.

The stories of different patients are shared with the reader. There is Robert Lowell. the poet, who suffers from manic depression. There is Professor Shultz, the Harvard linguist who hears sounds in the words he reads, whose life of loss and tragedy most likely contributed to his first psychotic break as well as his subsequent ones. There is Marvin, the most famous patient at Mayflower, a man of 15 distinct personalities ranging from a French poet to Carmen Miranda. There is James Marshall, a war veteran with only one limb (and not all his limbs were lost in the war) who can fold the U.S. flag with his one remaining arm, raise it on the flag pole daily and take it down lovingly every night to refold.

Unfortunately, the administration of the hospital changes and a psychiatrist with little empathy and a desire for complete control takes the helm. During group therapy, he delights in bringing up painful aspects of each patient’s illness and they cringe in the mandated group therapy with him. He betrays each and every one of them in some great way.

The novel is told in alternating viewpoints; one chapter from Katharine’s and the other from Frederick’s. The structure works well. We understand what Frederick is going through in the desperate situation of his hospitalization, which goes on for months. He struggles with multiple solitary confinements and ECT (electric shock) treatments. We also see how hard it is for Katharine to sustain her family as a single parent and to maintain the strength she knows that she needs to have in order to find herself. She is gaining insight on codependency and sees that her desire to please helps everyone but herself.

All of the characters are given great depth. The patients, and the extent of their illnesses, is poetically described. Block gets mental illness, both the beauty and despair that go along with it. His poetic imagery and narrative never falter and the beauty of the book is sustained until the end. This is by far one of the best books I have read in the last ten years. It is a phenomenal feat of love and writing.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 13 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House (June 21, 2011)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Stefan Merrill Block
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of: 

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July 1, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Facing History, Family Matters, Literary, NE & New York, y Award Winning Author

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