Book Review: Queen for a Day (Maxine Rosaler)
Reviewed by Maura Madden
Maxine Rosaler's Queen for a Day is a novel in which the chapters follow a chronological progression but couldalso stand alone as individual short stories. The narrator and central character of most chapters is Mimi Slavitt, the mother of a son with autism. We follow Mimi through the novel as she slowly comes to terms with the permanency of her son's condition.
The overarching theme of the book is Mimi's journey to understand and accept her son's condition. In our introduction to Mimi and her husband Jake, they are on their way to see a therapist about Danny. Early in the story they are still in denial as to Danny's disorder and welcome the therapist's view that the problem is with Mimi and Jake rather than with Danny.
Even once she acknowledges that his autism, Mimi focuses her attention on "fixing Danny." She seeks behaviorism therapies to "cure" him rather than trying to foster development within the boundaries of his diagnosis. Mimi describes their early approaches, saying "All Jake and I had to guide us was a manual we had bought off the internet. We often felt we had no idea what we were doing, trying to fix Danny's brain all by ourselves." She believes five to be a "magical age…after which the changes [sic] for recovery were greatly diminished" and puts pressure upon the whole family to beat this deadline.While autism plays a central role in this book, we don't actually learn a lot about Danny as a person or his specific diagnosis. He certainly appears in the book, but more as a vehicle through which we experience Mimiís anger, sadness, and frustration rather than as an individual who we get to know.
Each chapter containsa story built around a secondary character who is predominant only in that specific chapter. The secondary characters are all linked in some way to Mimi's struggle to navigate Danny's disability. While Mimi is the most frequent narrator, a few of the chapters contain sections narrated by secondary characters. This allows the reader a perspective of both Mimi and Danny different than that provided by Mimi's point of view.
Many of the secondary characters are mothers whose children who also have autism. Danny's disorder causes Mimi to feel lonely and knowing that others share the experience is reassuring. Mimi says of her friend Amy, "It was comforting for me just to know that Amy was out there, enduring and persevering. I had to know she was there. I had to know that I was not alone."
We learn early in the novel that Mimi's relationship with her husband Jake is one built upon volatility. The two constantly bicker in a manner that conveys their enjoyment of the squabbles. This highly emotional relationship is the backdrop of the family into which Danny is born and against which his autism is contrasted.
The dichotomy continues throughout the novel as Mimi experiences multiple acrimonious relationships within the story. She fights with friends, the school board, her doctor, and even strangers. She even describes how Jake tries to help her come up with appropriate responses to others and "keep [her] big fat mouth shut" but when upset she can't help but respond with vulgarities. This is very different from Danny who "couldn't care less about" the other kids and will "be fine. He always is."
Mimi's character is often sympathetic if not always likeable. Even those without a disabled child can relate to Mimi's feelings of otherness and her need for comradery. Though her issues are compounded by the autism, worrying about the development of one's child and comparing them to other children are universal feelings that any parent can relate to. Mimi's expectations versus the reality of motherhood is a theme that will resonate with most mothers.
Danny's Bike accident is a major turning point in the story. While Danny lay unconscious in the hospital, Mimi spent time "watching Danny breathe, entreating a vaguely imagined, yet cruel and demanding, God to give her back her son, exactly as he had been before the accident." After the accident Mimi is still wishing Danny could "be given the chance to live a normal life," yet we see her focus change from how Danny reflects upon her to what will become of Danny once she and Jake are gone.
Throughout the novel Mimi moves from denial, to battling the diagnosis, to defeat and depression. It is not until Danny is an adolescent that she begins to move towards acceptance and even appreciation for who he is.
Queen for a Day provides an honest portrayal of the emotional challenges of parenting a disabled child. She also provides a unique story about a specific character with a strong personality. It is easy to either place a caregiver upon a pedestal as angelic and selfless or to portray them in a pitiable light. Rosler successfully avoids these pitfalls and allows the reader to experience Mimi as a multi-dimensional character.
Title: Queen for a Day