Best comic novel of the year for boomers

Philadelphia humor writer Roz Warren, whose work appears everywhere from The Funny Times to The New York Times, contributes to BoomerCafé too from time to time, and told us about a book that a fellow boomer has written and it got our fancy. Roz wrote a review for Women’s Voices for Change, which we’re reprinting here. The book is called, Tender is the Brisket.

The best comic novel I’ve read this year wasn’t published by Random House or Penguin. It was self-published by a baby boomer, Philadelphia writer (and Women’s Voices contributor) Stacia Friedman. The title? Tender is the Brisket. Does the book live up to the comic promise of that title? Absolutely.

Author Stacia Friedman.

Author Stacia Friedman.

The main character, Ruth, is a TV writer who, as her gold-digging pal Katya frequently points out, “is over forty… with nothing to show for it.” A few sitcoms, a couple of failed relationships, a marriage that went south— and no kids. At 42, Ruth wants what most women want— true love. She also wants a child.

A little financial security wouldn’t hurt either.

When her father dies, Ruth flies to New York for the funeral. To prevent her selfish siblings from stashing their wealthy mother, who has dementia, in a home, Ruth moves in with Mom and takes over the burden of her care. Which means continuing to cope with her malicious brother (a drop-dead-handsome man desperately seeking the money he needs to transition into a drop-dead-gorgeous woman) and her hostile sister, a clueless writer of self-help books like The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Highly Insensitive People, whose hubby is cheating on her and whose teenage daughter is totally out of control.

Roz Warren, writer and literary critic.

Roz Warren, writer and literary critic.

Ruth quickly lands a job writing for a local TV star. Before long, she’s dating two men — an über-wealthy silver fox who wines, dines, and adores her, and a hot young Michelangelo’s David lookalike who thrills her in bed. (The only problem? He‘s a fellow writer who prefers shop talk to pillow talk.) Soon she’s engaged to one but enthralled with the other.

Friedman, who has worked in the film industry herself, knows how to put a scene together, keep it moving, and keep the laughs coming. But her wit carries insight, as in this brief description of exactly how Jewish Ruth’s family is:

The Sheratons were a secular family, just a synagogue membership away from being devout atheists. Heaven was a Montauk beach house. Hell was the drive to get there.

While Brisket is chock full of plot twists and zingers, the heart of the book is the day-to-day reality of caring for a loved one with dementia.

Stacia Friedman with her mother, Ceil.

Stacia Friedman with her mother, Ceil.

Friedman has made this journey herself— she took care of her own mother after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. But, as she writes in a recent essay, she was unable to “translate her suffering into laughter” until several years after her mother’s death, when she began to remember the funny moments, like the time her Jewish mother “opened her eyes in a Catholic hospice and saw a nun standing over her bed playing a harp.”

With the emotional distance that time provided, explains Friedman, “I started to scratch the surface of dementia for the humor that lies just beneath.”

While Brisket is unsparing about how tough Ruth’s daily life as a caretaker becomes, Friedman chooses to focus on what Ruth gains as well as what she loses. Although their relationship hasn’t always been smooth, Ruth comes through for her mother, from a sense of obligation but also from love. She learns a lot, and we learn with her.

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