Thursday, August 18, 2011

Strange Relation by Rachel Hadas

Strange Relation by Rachel Hadas

Date Published: February 2011
ISBN: 978-1-58988-061-0
Publisher: Paul Dry Books
Page: 204
Genre: Memoir; Non-Fiction
Rating: 5.0 out of 5

Book Summary: In 2004 Rachel Hadas's husband, George Edwards, a composer and professor of music at Columbia University, was diagnosed with early-onset dementia at the age of sixty-one. Strange Relation is her account of "losing" George. Her narrative begins when George's illness can no longer be ignored, and ends in 2008 soon after his move to a dementia facility (when, after thirty years of marriage, she finds herself no longer living with her husband). Within the cloudy confines of those difficult years, years when reading and writing were an essential part of what kept her going, she "tried to keep track... tried to tell the truth."

My Thoughts: My review of Strange Relation by Rachel Hadas is long overdue. I apologize to the author, the publisher, Paul Dry and to Mary Bisbee-Beek who brought this book to my attention. I've been reading this engrossing memoir for a long time because it's compelling, beautifully written and so worth savoring I couldn't stop reading it. Rachel Hadas is a professor of poetry and literature and a published poet. It is therefore fitting that she found help, guidance and comfort, as she tried to grapple with George's dementia diagnosis, in literature and poetry. She shares the passages from literature, essays and articles and the poems, including her own, with us in Strange Relation as she struggles with the drastic changes in her life.

Hadas is intensely honest in this heart-breaking, very personal account of dealing with the progression of dementia in her husband as well as the changes wrought to his character and personality over time. Hadas explains George has never been very talkative, he's more contemplative. One of the things she and George have always had in their marriage was a "shared silence". Even before Hadas knew something was wrong with George, the silence changed becoming the kind of silence that comes from living with someone who doesn't talk to you: "bleak, uncanny, sometimes infuriating." As I read about some of the changes in George amounting to the loss of the man Hadas married, I shed some tears. Hadas makes it clear how comprehensive the changes are in George when she relays a conversation with their son Jonathan, a junior or senior in high school when George began suffering from dementia. Jonathan, now several years out of college, discusses with his mother how he's never had an adult conversation with his father...and never will.

Hadas shares with us that she looks to literature and poetry because it helps her to figure out what she's thinking. Through literature Rachel discovered she wasn't alone because other people had experienced difficult situations similar to her own or harder and "found the courage to face and describe" what happened to them. Hadas provides detailed explanations and insights of why specific passages or poems from the works of authors such as Lawrence Shainberg, Wallace Stevens, Clinton Erb, Barry Unsworth, Allegra Goodman, Phillip Larkin, Thomas Hardy, James Merrill and Edith Wharton among many others. I think even readers who don't read poetry or literature will understand and appreciate why these various works served as life-lines for Hadas. Similarly, Hadas shares many of her own poems, some written in response to the impact of specific incidents in her life with George while others Hadas wrote previously evince how she was feeling and coping with George's Alzheimers.

One of Rachel Hadas poems that touched me:

love to spy what people
curled beside the river
are reading: Epictetus,
"Fermat's last Theorem," "Madame Bovary,"

until the afternoon
sun has its way with them.
Broad and glaucous river;
weeds and glittering rocks;

a navy T-shirt someone
shat on; a broken bottle.
One reader on the bank
from sqinting in the glare

has yielded to the hour
and drifted off downstream,
still there in basking body,
but dreaming, absent, gone.

You are like that:
your mind a mote shining across the water,
your person, handsome, lean,
comfortably angled to the sun.

Hadas discovered that once she finally understand that George was ill, writing about it, self-expression, helped her to further understand and clarify what was happening to George and in their life together. Hadas’ courage in sharing this difficult journey through George's decent into Alzheimer's and her role in it is remarkable. In sharing this story, Hadas provides succor and a truly valuable helping hand to countless other family and friends who lives will be impacted by dementia and Alzheimer’s in the future. Strange Relation is an emotionally intense and complex book that pulls on your heart strings. I cannot recommend this beautifully written, poignant and absorbing memoir highly enough but be aware it’s not a quick read.

Rachel Hadas website.

Thank you to Mary Bisbee-Beek for the opportunity to read and review Strange Relation and thank you to the publisher, Paul Dry for a copy of the book


  1. Oh my, this sounds like an incredibly sad book. The fact that the son mentions that he has never, and will never have an adult conversation with his father really touched me in a profound way. Fantastic review, Amy. I need to read this book.

  2. Wow - great review of, what sounds like a very heavy book. The poem touched me as well. Good job.

  3. I just finished a wonderful novel dealing with Alzheimer's. This memoir sounds really emotional. Your wonderful review does justice to a book that you have rated so highly :)

  4. this sounds amazing! I'm going to see if i can get a copy!

  5. I don't read a lot of memoirs but like to note the good ones for when I do. This looks like a good one :)

  6. This sounds like a book I would love to read. What a sad, sad story. I often think losing someone like this must be even worse than when they die. Because theiy are still here and at the same time they are gone.
    I love memoirs written by poets, their choice of words, rhythm of sentneces makes them mostly so special.
    I also like the poems you quoted a lot.
    I'll keep this in mind.

  7. Every book I've read that deals with this subject matter has been heart breaking and this sounds no different.

  8. This sounds like a so sad read Amy -- Kinda like Still ALice in some ways. I don't think I could read it right now, but am happy that you loved it.