I’ve read quite a number of books featuring characters with Alzheimer’s or dementia in my time, but I’ve never come across one quite like Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. We received a copy of this one from Simon & Schuster for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Ruth is thirty and her life is falling apart: she and her fiancé are moving house, but he’s moving out to live with another woman; her career is going nowhere; and then she learns that her father, a history professor beloved by his students, has Alzheimer’s. At Christmas, her mother begs her to stay on and help. For a year.
Goodbye, Vitamin is the wry, beautifully observed story of a woman at a crossroads, as Ruth and her friends attempt to shore up her father’s career; she and her mother obsess over the ambiguous health benefits – in the absence of a cure – of dried jellyfish supplements and vitamin pills; and they all try to forge a new relationship with the brilliant, childlike, irascible man her father has become.
Most books about Alzheimer’s that I’ve come across tend to feature, at some point during the story, a scene or scenes that really bring home to the reader the harrowing disease that Alzheimer’s is – the way it erases the personality and memories of an individual and shatters the familiar ways in which family and friends have connected with the sufferer throughout their lifetime.
Goodbye, Vitamin is nothing like that.
In fact, Goodbye, Vitamin forgoes the inevitable destruction of the human brain and any relationships in which said brain was involved, and instead focuses on the ways in which Ruth, chaotic and underachieving daughter of an Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, tries to adjust to a life put on hold, while she helps out her mother for “just a year”.
I must admit, it was quite refreshing to read a book featuring a character with Alzheimer’s and not come away feeling angsty and unsettled at the prospect of literally having one’s mind slowly eroded from within.
The book is written in a sort of diary format, as Ruth recounts events in chronological order during her year back at home. I generally find diary-type books engaging and so it was in this case. I tend to enjoy that the sections can be quite short and so I feel like I’m getting somewhere with the book quickly. Having said that, this isn’t an overly hefty read and things move along apace from the moment Ruth decides to give it a year until the poignant but hopeful ending.
Ruth has a dry and self-deprecating sense of humour and manages to reminisce on both her broken past relationship and her childhood relationship with her father without being particularly maudlin, but highlighting the weirdness that we accept as everday life. Her father’s ex-students play a surprising and uplifting role in attempting to halt her father’s decline and I had a bit of chuckle at their cloak and dagger antics as well as their finding new excuses to take their “classes” off campus.
As much as this is a story about the decline of a family member and a change in the parent-child relationship, it is also a story about the chaos of early adulthood – yes, even up to one’s thirties! Ruth is in as much a period of flux as her father as she tries to forget past mistakes and forge a new path in her career and life in general.
I would recommend Goodbye, Vitamin if you are looking for a convivial tale about an unwanted mental guest and the ways in which people choose to remember.
Until next time,