‘Center of the Universe’ tells bizarre but entertaining story of enduring matriarch

‘Center of the Universe’ tells bizarre but entertaining story of enduring matriarch

The close relationship between laughter and tears often brings together comedy and tragedy. Drama sometimes unites mirth and ruin, recording a person’s aspirations and failures while simultaneously presenting an amusing picture of limitations and frailties. These elements are all richly examined in this sparkling memoir that creatively merges humor and sadness.
The “center of the universe,” which gives the book its title, is the author’s mother, Lola, a colorful woman whose experiences and psychotic episodes provide ample material for what is essentially the story of her life. However, the book also tells about the author’s father, Mort, and her two siblings, Ben and Helen. Accordingly, while the focus is on Lola, the narrative becomes a vivid and vibrant biography of this offbeat Jewish family whose religious observance consists of “twice a year to temple for the High Holy Days.”
While the opening scenes are tragic in nature, the presentation is filled with wit and humor, paving the way for the problems that follow, all set forth with beguiling jocularity. The story begins in May 1983 in Paris, where the author has been sent by her New York advertising agency to launch a marketing campaign for an antiperspirant. Her brother, Ben, calls to inform her that their father is dead and that their mother is in a coma. They were on their boat, Mr. Fix-It, named for Mort’s insistence on his clumsy puttering to repair anything “mechanical, electrical, combustible, whatever.” His effort to fix the generator on the boat resulted in their being “baked and smoked.” Mort had been dead for several hours when they were finally pulled out. Lola had a pulse and was taken to a hospital but was not expected to live. The author hastens home to Providence, expecting to attend a double funeral. As things turn out, Lola survives but is unable to attend her husband’s funeral. 
Flashback scenes humorously describe the early lives of the family, going back to the grandfather who came to America in 1898 and who became “the chief rabbi of Rhode Island.” He kept getting arrested during the Prohibition era for selling sacramental wine.
Lola eventually recovers sufficiently to be discharged from the hospital and the author delays her return to Paris in order to look after her mother. However, after a series of bizarre episodes, Lola is admitted to a psychiatric institution and is then transferred to a “rehab” hospital. She makes progress and a year after the accident, she moves to Florida. The book ends 10 years later when all three siblings visit Lola, who has lived with a succession of men and is still a bit “dotty,” but is managing. “I keep my head down,” she says.
Nancy Bachrach’s first book is an eminently successful portrayal of a family, effectively combining cleverness with banter and grief with farce to demonstrate the close linkage between comedy and tragedy.