The Nostalgia of Coming Home When Everything’s Changed

Book review: Bettyville, by George Hodgman (Amazon / Book Depository)

My friends worry that I am falling into a hole here, that this time away is really giving up, running away. Since I lost my job, I don’t know quite who it is I am now. Suddenly I feel older. In New York, my closet is full of clothes that still smell a little like youth. I cannot bring myself to get rid of them. Betty and I are both crossing bridges we would rather avoid. Luckily to distract us there is Wheel of Fortune, a show we despise so avidly we cannot ever miss it.

George Hodgman, book and magazine editor with stints at publications like Vanity Fair under his belt, and longtime Manhattan dweller returns home to Paris, Missouri (“population 1,246 and falling”) to care for his 90-year-old mother, Betty. Betty accepts his help sporadically and with no small amount of trouble to give him in return, despite her obvious gratitude at not being left alone.

“She has walked so far, through time,” Hodgman observes of his mother, considering the eras she’s lived through. Betty’s a tough character as she experiences the heartbreaking, scary loss of her ability to care for herself despite her fierce, stubborn independence. Hodgman observes this – the changes in Betty and how it must feel to know parts of herself are slipping away as she loses memory and capabilities, as she lives in a world hard to recognize too.

He’s at a turning point himself, wondering if he’s hiding out in Paris to avoid his career and a certain loneliness that he’s curated out of what seemed like necessity, all compounded by knowing that he’s aging, too.

I am a loner, but I hate to lose people. I can only imagine how scary it is to know that the person one is losing is oneself.

Caretaking is unknown territory for Hodgman, evident down to his specialty dish of casserole with potato chips (barbecue potato chips). As he tells it, he’s more of a care “inflicter” than a natural who adapts to this new role and life phase smoothly. Although how smooth can this situation ever be, I’d ask. But Hodgman’s case is especially bumpy. He’s had a lifetime of being uncomfortable in his own skin, so a return to his stifling hometown and a house full of family memories – some heartwarmingly lovely, others reminding him of why he’s struggled with himself – was bound to be an emotional minefield. But he does make it very funny in the telling, imagine this child:

“I’m a nervous wreck,” I’d cry out. I was an only child, raised mostly among adults. I repeated what I heard …

Hodgman is gay, and in his stiff, old-style Midwestern family (“She is of a generation who existed before feelings were spoken of,”) that wasn’t the most accepting environment. It laid the foundation for what would be a life of neuroses, self-doubt, and a loneliness he’s come to accept as normal. He loves his mother and his late father, but as he goes about his new normal in the day-to-day with Betty, he reflects on what their lives together were like.

Like the assortment of strange relics in our basement, I have some cracks, broken chips, missing pieces. I have spent my life trailed by voices in my head saying, “You’re no good. This isn’t right. You’re not right.” My skin is sometimes the most uncomfortable garment of all.

He allows nostalgia for his youth, and Betty’s, while examining what it all meant and what some of it cost, and navigating the new dictates of their present while bracing for what’s to come. Heavy subjects, especially when past hurts and the heartbreak of seeing aging parents are involved, but the surprising delight amidst it is the bright humor with which Hodgman recounts episodes both past and present. This wit strikes the perfect balance with the seriousness that prompted his move home, of recalling the friction with his family and questioning of his own choices, the haunting memories of being a gay man in New York City at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. It’s cliche to say “I laughed, I cried”, but did I ever while reading this.

My mother has sometimes lived her life for the neighbors. I have never been able to remember the neighbors’ names.

Through it all, Hodgman draws comparisons between the way he lived his life and how his parents did, and considering this in the light of the approaching end of Betty’s life. It may sound uncomfortable, or upsetting in what it makes you consider about your own, but I can only insist that it’s thoughtful, funny, and much lighter than it all may sound. It ends up reassuring and comforting to anyone who’s grappled with the same questions, problems, or scenarios. It’s relatable, and I say that as a non-gay, non-middle aged non-male not from the Midwest.

I took it in. I really did. I heard everything that people in the world around me said about who I was. It hurt me, but I thought I had no right to say anything because I was wrong. I didn’t know what silence would cost, how it would change my life. It takes a long time to outrun the things that the world drills into you.

Some favorite moments:

When she finds a book she likes, she reads it again and again, but will never admit she has actually enjoyed it. “It was all right,” she says. “Better than most of that stuff you get. Better than that Rachel Maddow. She goes on television looking like she is about to play baseball.”

[His father] said, “Maybe your mother would let you off if we could think of some other sport you could play.”
I asked, “How about bridge?”

One of the older boys was named Kevin, a junior or senior. He drove a noisy old car and taunted me. I imagined this automobile exploding, dismembering my most immediate nemeses and sending the Bible carrier flying toward the loving arms of his Lord Jesus.

The ending isn’t exactly satisfying (but when are these things, in real life). I know that I wouldn’t have appreciated this story and its telling when I was younger. And Hodgman’s self-deprecation, while still accepting himself for who he is, was an appealing glimpse of a life. But when he writes, “I think people who have always felt okay in the world will never understand those of us who haven’t,” I think the same goes for whether a reader will fall in love with the book. It may be hard to identify with if you haven’t experienced similar – the impending loss of a parental figure and the upsetting changes preceding it, or a lifelong sense of discomfort in your own skin.

Hodgman mentions that he’d always wanted to write a book and it feels like this was the one he was meant to. Touching, hilarious, warmly uplifting and reassuring, like a firm Midwestern pat on the shoulder in times of crisis – a quiet testament to everything being ok even when it’s not ok. 4.5/5

I want my mother to know that I may not be what she expected, but I am someone who tries to be good…I cannot bring her the child who sings with my father’s voice. But I can wait with her through these strange days for whatever is going to happen.

Bettyville: A Memoir
by George Hodgman
published 2015 by Viking

Amazon / Book Depository

18 thoughts on “The Nostalgia of Coming Home When Everything’s Changed

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  1. Great review as always. These are issues that have concerned me in some manner and when I first started reading, it seemed like the book was going to be oppressively heavy and one I’d avoid but now I’d give it a chance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! I thought exactly the same! I hoped it could have some helpful insights and thought it would be worth at least checking out for that, but I worried it would upset me too much. It gives you a lot to think about, certainly, but it ultimately felt so beneficial. Definitely give it a chance if you think you might like it, it’s a nice reminder that we’re not alone in enduring these tough spots in life.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I so love reading your reviews. They’re akin to essays that require reflection in the moment.

    This book strikes so many of my chords. I had a complicated relationship with my mother and I returned home weekly in 2017 (9 hours round trip for eight months) following her diagnosis of untreatable lung cancer. They turned out to be the best times of my life but I didn’t think that would be the outcome when I first started. I learned a LOT about her that explained me and, for the first time, in my life, felt her pride in me. She died that November and I don’t regret one moment of that time, despite the physical toll.

    I think I’m going to seek this one out and read it over time. I’d like to see what insights the author has and if our journeys have anything in common.

    Thanks, again, for featuring this title.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That means SO much to me, thank you, truly, for that incredibly kind compliment!

      I’m really happy that it struck a chord with you. Actually, my grandmother (who was like a mother to me) also passed from lung cancer, in 2016, and I’ve only been receptive to these kinds of stories since then, I would never have given this book a thought before that. So I think it could really hold some meaning for you. His relationship with his mom was also complicated but like from your experience, he managed to draw a lot of meaning out of it and clearly enjoyed a lot about their time together. It was so moving and reminded me of many things I’d felt during her illness and that we’re dealing with now as my grandfather ages. I also read it slowly and that was the best way to take it in – and before I’d even finished I’d already ordered and sent a copy to my aunt. It’s that kind of book that you just want to immediately get to the people who need it!

      I’m glad you could have that experience with your mom, and that despite the stress of it, it ended up helping you learn something about yourself and your relationship with her. It sounds like the best possible outcome. Thanks for sharing with me 🙂 I hope you’ll read this one, I think it’ll have some moments and insights that speak to you.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review! I’ll have to give this a listen sometime. The premise is a bit gloomy, but it sounds like the author approaches his past with humor. I don’t think I’ve read many Midwestern memoirs either, despite having grown up there, and I’m interested to see how the author describes life there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know it sounds a bit gloomy, but it really doesn’t end up feeling like it! It was so funny but touching. The Midwestern aspect of the story is really interesting, he highlights some of the characters in his extended family and in the town and his descriptions and the scenes he paints are great, really expressive. I love those kind of character portraits, and I also liked the perspective of his storytelling as he looks at his hometown again after making a life in New York. It’s really a wonderful book despite the heavy subject matter!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great review! While I always enjoy your reviews, this one in particular was, well, relatable…and I say that as a gay, middle-aged female from the Midwest. It sounds as though it was relatable for you as well. Sometimes, I think, we could all benefit from the reassurance of a firm Midwestern pat on the shoulder, even if delivered in book form. I am so looking forward to reading this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Bets 🙂 I’m glad it appealed to you, I think you’d get a lot out of reading it. It’s really a gem and we all could use this kind of firm Midwestern pat on the shoulder in book form!


  5. The premise reminds me a little of the novel “Gone Girl” but without the hostile marriage aspect, of course. How difficult it must be, to go back to your hometown under such circumstances. It was very brave of this guy to write down his thoughts and impressions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t read Gone Girl but I think I know the basic outline, interesting that there’s a parallel! I agree, it must’ve been so difficult and was very brave of him to write this as it’s very revealing and not always flattering, but the honesty lends it value. I had so much respect for him considering the circumstances.


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