Evie Ferrante is busy assembling her first exhibit as Senior Curator of the Five Burroughs Historical Society. It’s a big deal and she’s up for the challenge. She’s overseeing the placement of a B-25 airplane engine which had been found at the bottom of an elevator shaft in the Empire State Building. It happened to land there after a crash in the ’40s. The theme of the exhibit is how fire and disaster shaped New York City.
As Fate would have it, that’s when disaster pays Evie a call in the form of a text message from her sister Ginger, It’s Mom. Call me.
And what a disaster it is.
Evie must drop everything to fly out and help her sister sort through their dysfunctional alcoholic mother’s life. As Ginger deals with Mom at the hospital, Evie deals with her mother’s house, which is much worse than she feared. Outside, it’s tagged with graffiti and the stairs have almost rotted through. Inside, it’s like a homeless encampment, filled with garbage, dead food containers, empty liquor bottles, cockroaches, moths, spiders, and reeking of decay. Evie digs in. As she cleans, she searches her mother’s records trying to assess her financial and insurance situations and stumbles upon envelopes stuffed with cash, thousands of dollars just lying around.
Where did the money come from, and why is it just sitting there?
Ephron is a talented writer and does a splendid job of creating a sense of place with richly drawn characters embroiled in realistic predicaments. At its heart, the story is a mystery wrapped around an issue so many now face, caretaking for parents in physical and mental decline, and the burden and stress it puts on families. We feel it, we recognize it, we understand it. Ephron is writing fiction with a gravitas rooted in reality and that’s why her books are so good.
The story unfolds naturally and isn’t force. One mystery seems to lead to another linking the lives of the two main characters and none of their problems are trivial or easily solved. And as in most good stories, things only seem to get worse the deeper you dig, until it seems there’s no way out.
There was an Old Woman is a contemplation of where we are in a society, our relationships within our families, and the struggle we all face.