Cover image for My mother's island
My mother's island
Mueller, Marnie.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Willimantic, CT : Curbstone Press, 2002.
Physical Description:
240 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Library

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In Marnie Mueller's My Mother's Island , Sarah Ellis must tend to her dying mother, Reba. This moving story of subterranean conflict between a mother and her only child explores the tension between duty and commitment-how to honor one's parents even when one feels damaged by them. With sorrow, rage, empathy, and touches of humor, the story reaches its irrevocable conclusion in a death scene where Sarah is shocked to find a simple truth that has always evaded her.

This novel is played out against the lush ambiance of the Caribbean and the embracing involvement of the people of the working class Puerto Rican community where Sarah's parents settled twenty years earlier. Sarah, who has always taken care of her mother's needs, has steeled herself to single-handedly provide support to her dying mother, but gradually allows other to help her-Lydia Rentas, the girlfriend of a local heroin user and the foster mother of a child whose own mother has AIDS; Estela, a neighbor across the street, whose carport is overflowing with orchids; Inez, whose four-year-old daughter has become the granddaughter Sarah has never provided her mother; Pearl, a former sports writer who is Reba's bridge partner; and Dr. Gold, a New Yorker who thirty years earlier married a Puerto Rican and has taken on Latino attitudes toward the process of dying. With their support, Sarah comes to terms with her mother and with her own past.

" My Mother's Island is a daughter's death watch: loving, angry, remorseful, and profoundly revealing of our lives as adult children. Marnie Mueller's honest and unsentimental novel helped me fathom the meaning of my own mother's recent death and should similarly serve other readers in negotiating the strong currents and unpredictable eddies of this milestone of primary loss."-Wally Lamb, author of She's Come Undone .

Author Notes

Marnie Mueller was born in Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp, described in her second novel, The Climate of the Country . Her first novel, Green Fires , based on her Peace Corps experience in Ecuador, won the American Book Award, was a B&N "Discovery" choice, and a NYPL's Best Books for the Teen Age choice.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Sarah, an only child who hates her mother, Reba, so much she refused to have children of her own, nonetheless leaves New York City for Puerto Rico as soon as she learns that her mother is dying. Sarah leaves Roberto, her therapist husband, and arrives at her mother's rundown little island house prepared, or so she believes, for the end. But what ensues is a period of intense recollection, unspooled in mesmerizing and unsettling flashbacks, and unprecedented closeness as she helps her mother die and confronts the source of her lifelong rage. In circumstantial details, Sarah's parents resemble the protagonists of Mueller's last powerful novel, The Climate of the Country (1999), but this is a wholly new story and a far more intimate and startlingly authentic work. Mueller's writing has never been more pristine or her psychology more acute as she charts with courage and stunning poetic clarity the final round in an exceedingly difficult mother-daughter relationship, and the hard, messy work of dying. Her rendering of Sarah's wrenchingly harsh childhood, the timbre of island life, the compassion of Reba's caretaker, and Roberto's forbearance illuminates myriad facets of the human condition, coalescing into an unwavering and unforgettable saga of women's fortitude and love. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

A woman returns to Puerto Rico to help her terminally ill mother through her final days in Mueller's third novel, a gritty yet graceful book that unflinchingly looks at the reality of losing a parent. The story opens with Sarah Ellis leaving her job and husband in New York to join her mother, Reba, as abdominal cancer begins its final march through Reba's battered body. But Sarah is hardly an angel of mercy in a series of flashbacks, Mueller reveals both Reba's deep-seated cruelty toward her daughter and Sarah's hatred for her mother, a revulsion offset to some extent by Sarah's respect for the devotion to social activism that Reba shared with her late husband, Scott. Some of the passages describing the family history are a bit mawkish and pedestrian, but the second half of this book turns absolutely riveting as Mueller delves into Sarah's fear, love and loathing while Reba stubbornly tries to hang onto her dignity as she awaits a final visit from her son-in-law, Roberto, a psychologist who is all too aware of the manipulation dominating the mother-daughter relationship. The account of the final days is especially gut-wrenching, as Sarah is finally forced to call in a nurse and a family friend to help her through her mother's brutal last hours. As a novel, this is a lovely but painful account of a difficult journey two women must take together to bring their problematic relationship to a close. On a deeper level, Mueller has crafted an exceptional book about the spirituality of death and dying that gets inside the reality of losing a parent with an intimacy and depth that no self-help treatise can hope to match. Agent, Liza Dawson. (Mar.) Forecast: Readers searching for texts on death and dying will find this novel especially compelling, but general readers will also appreciate Mueller's craftsmanship and insight. A blurb from Wally Lamb should help draw browsers. Five-city author tour. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Sarah Ellis's mother has many islands: Puerto Rico, her retirement home; the inner space she retreats to at unexpected moments; and her self-imposed emotional isolation. As her mother approaches death, Sarah makes a literal and figurative journey to reach those islands. Over the course of 27 days as her mother succumbs to cancer, Sarah struggles with her hatred of her mother and her own need to be needed. As she revisits childhood horrors and learns to let go of some of the past and to embrace, albeit cautiously, her mother's efforts to reach out, Sarah moves toward forgiveness and peace. Using elements of her own life, Mueller (Climate of the Country) has ably captured the conflicts and ambiguities of emotional relationships with both gentleness and honesty. Recommended for public libraries and women's collections. Jan Blodgett, Davidson Coll. Lib., NC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Day One My mother sits on the couch, waiting for me, done up like a little doll in one of her brightly colored cotton dresses; this one is pink and tangerine. Her skin is jaundiced and her face is strained and beaky with the effort of remaining upright.     "Dear one," she says, beaming warmly, creasing her worn skin. "How did you know I'd need you?"     How did I know? Because I've always known what my mother's needs are, and because Lydia Rentas had called me in New York City the day before and insinuated that my mother was beginning to die. "Tu mami no está comiendo, casi nadita," Lydia said in her low, muffled nasal tone that I've learned to understand over the past month of our telephone calls. My difficulty in comprehending her is not because we converse in Spanish to keep our discussions from my mother--I'm fluent in Puerto Rican Spanish--but because Lydia has a badly mended harelip that distorts her words.     This afternoon Lydia sits in the chair by the telephone. The wall behind her is an orangey-gold, a few shades more muted than Lydia's own carrot-bleached hair, and the wall behind my mother is green. Those two bright fields of color come together at the corner by the window where my mother always sits to talk with me, those phone calls when I can hear the bell-like serenade of coquís in the background. "Ko-key!" the ebullient frogs sing as we labor through our conversations.     My mother has painted these walls. My mother has painted the walls of every apartment or house we've ever rented, in whatever city, town or village we happened to have settled in. Each summer when she got off from teaching high school, she would say, "I think it's time to start," and we'd go out to the hardware store and buy the necessary gallons; in the early days we used oil-based paint and the house stank for a week even though we'd leave the windows open. Before beginning, she'd slip her slender body into dungarees and an old shirt of my father's, the collar of which she'd turned one too many times. She'd tie a bandanna around her curly black hair, secure paper bags over her shoes, and smear a skim of Vaseline on her glasses. "Paint makes all the difference," she opined in the stillness of those humid afternoons as we swished the wide brushes, and later the modern rollers, down one wall after another. "It conceals a multitude of sins."     My mother is dying in Levittown Lakes, Puerto Rico, an urbanización near Cataño, the town where one gets the ferry to go across the bay to Old San Juan. Her little house, a flat-roofed boxy structure, white with a hot pink front door, is on a cul-de-sac of other modest, pastel, cement block bungalows. My mother's street is Calle Maruja , the number AE 5. Everyone but my mother and the Haitian family across the street is Puerto Rican. The pink door is open now as I stand in her living room, and the tropical sun bakes my back. Life goes on behind me. Joey Rios, who picked me up from the airport in my mother's car--he is Lydia's draggy boyfriend--straddles our front fence, sitting there waiting to see if he will be needed. Salsa music pulses loudly from next door. Children ride their bicycles up and down the sidewalk before our house, seeking to find out why the señora's daughter has come again. Lydia watches me with a host of emotions in her pinched expression: proprietary protectiveness of my mother, concern for me and for mi mami , all-knowingness.     "Hi, Mom," I say in my most upbeat voice. "You look good."     "Do I, dear?" My mother smiles, but the way her black eyes dart warily tells me she knows better than to believe what I say. My mother is too smart. Her emotions shift like quicksilver through her intelligence--weighed, measured and packaged--to emerge in what she thinks is an appropriate response.     "Thank you, dear. That's very sweet of you."     "It feels so good to be here again," I say too loudly, flopping onto the Danish Modern couch, its brown-striped fabric scratchy against my sweaty skin. The wooden legs scrape on the terrazzo floor. "It's not as hot as it was in September."     "You know, dear," my mother sighs, "your energy fires me out. I think I'd like to go to bed again."     Lydia and I help her walk into the bedroom, Lydia giving me knowing glances over my mother's bowed head, glances that say, You see how bad she is. I feel the bones of my mother's back as I cradle her. Her arms are deceptively fleshy so I hadn't noticed how much weight she's lost. I help her out of her dress and take off her underwear while Lydia tidies the room, and am shocked anew by the wide purple zipper of stitches down my mother's belly, from beneath her small breasts to the thinning hair of her pubis. The tumor has grown back. Her stomach is distended to the size of a five-month pregnancy. She raises her arms like a dutiful child and I slip her pink gingham nightie over her illness.     "I am so tired," she says, lying back in her narrow bed against the pillows Lydia has plumped. "I've been waiting out there in the living room for two hours for you."     "I'm sorry," I say, old anger and guilt building. "I couldn't get the plane to fly any faster."     "I'm aware of that, dear." She sighs and closes her eyes. Here I am.     Lydia has gone back across the street with Joey. Joey, the junky, is in his late thirties but still lives with his mother Estela in a house directly opposite my mother's. I noticed as soon as I got into the car at the airport that Joey has put on twenty pounds since September, a good sign; he's staying off the stuff. That's what Lydia told me during one call, but I didn't believe her even though I said, "That's great, Lydia, ojalá he stays off." " Ojalá ," she answered solemnly, and then giggled as if to nullify her hope. Lydia, who is fifty but can look and act like a teenager, comes to stay at Estela's on the days she is looking after my mother. I think Lydia saw the job as an opportunity to keep tabs on Joey, to stop him from scoring and make sure he doesn't land back in jail for dealing.     So, here I am again. I spent the month of September caring for my mother in the hospital in San Juan. I returned to New York once I'd settled her back in the house on Calle Maruja with a full-time nurse and with Lydia to do the housework and to check on the nurse. Estela had said, tapping the sagging skin below her left eye, "You can never trust an outsider to do the job, you must get someone you know to oversee." I don't think Estela meant Lydia. The last person Estela wants in her house is this woman she claims, "wants my bebé Joey, wants him to marry her. She's too old for him." Estela doesn't seem to realize that Lydia is the best thing that ever happened to her handsome, weak, skaghead son.     It was Joey who recommended Lydia to me, which made me have grave doubts about her, but then I met her. I immediately liked this tiny, fit woman with her carrot hair tied in a high ponytail. Her face was ruddy and freckled, suggesting that her hair might actually have been red once. Her teeth were false, so they were as white as a youngster's, and except for her harelip, her face was fine-featured and cute. She was born in Brooklyn and came to P.R. as a teenager when her mother was dying. "My heart was broken," she confided to me at our first meeting. "You know what I mean. I stayed here because in P.R. I felt like I was with mi mami . It's the worst thing to have your mami die." She had looked at me with such compassion that I couldn't tell Lydia that I didn't think it would be the same for me, that I was certain it wouldn't be. How could I tell her I was afraid I'd be dry-eyed at my mother's funeral?     Today, just before Lydia left with Joey, she gave me a big hug. "I'm your mommy now, Sarah. I'll take care of you like a mommy through this. I'll come every day to take care of you," she whispered in Spanish into my ear, even though my mother's air conditioning was on the highest setting and her door was closed.     I turn on the television and its blare melds into the rising clamor of early evening in the neighborhood--radios blasting, pots and pans clanging, cocks crowing off-schedule, and children calling. There are no real windows in this neighborhood, only louvers that can be cranked open and shut to the outside air. In my mother's bedroom, sheets of thin plastic cover the windows at night to keep the air conditioning in. We live in each others' homes in Levittown Lakes. On this evening in November, the proximity of our lives makes me less lonely as I flip the channels and settle on the Classic Movie station.     The sun streams deep gold through the open front door and across the chalky, cracked terrazzo floor, reaching the dark teal blue chair that we've had since we lived on Long Island. My parents moved down here twenty years ago to retire; after six months my father couldn't stand the idleness, or maybe it was the constant company of my mother that weighed on him, so he went back to work and, a little later, so did she. My father died twelve years ago. My mother is going to die here too, very soon, though right now she's sleeping. How many times in how many different homes I've waited while my mother slept, taking her long stuporous naps through the afternoons. Today it's different. I am here waiting for her to die.     We have lived in so many places, my mother and I. My father, too, but he was rarely around, was either on the road or out late working, "coming home soon." My mother and I, following my father from job to job, settled for a year here or two years there, five years was our longest, in California, Washington State, Chicago, Ohio, Arkansas, Vermont and Long Island, and in those locales we changed apartments on an average of three times per town. Whenever the rent was raised above thirty-five dollars a month, we had to pack up our belongings and move to a cheaper neighborhood. Here we are again, she and I, alone together in Levittown Lakes. This place costs her one hundred dollars a month in mortgage payments--comparable, I'd say, to what we paid in the 1950s.     I have always been my mother's best companion, while she has too often been my enemy. I wonder if she knows how much and how vividly I hate her. I wonder if she knows that I haven't had a child because I don't want another human to hate me as much as I hated her. I dare myself to have these thoughts even though she is in the next room, dying. And then I begin to cry. It is a deep, gut-wrenching weeping that I don't understand, but I do know that it has to do with her dying in the next room and my sitting out here alone in November in my shorts and tank top, watching an old black-and-white movie on television while other people's vibrant lives go on just outside our louvered windows. Excerpted from My Mother's Island by Marnie Mueller. Copyright © 2002 by Marnie Mueller. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.