Summary and book reviews of The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

The Memory Palace

A Memoir

By Mira Bartok

The Memory Palace
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2011,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2011,
    336 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Elena Spagnolie

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About this Book

Book Summary

"People have abandoned their loved ones for much less than you’ve been through," Mira Bartók is told at her mother’s memorial service. It is a poignant observation about the relationship between Mira, her sister, and their mentally ill mother. Before she was struck with schizophrenia at the age of nineteen, beautiful piano protégé Norma Herr had been the most vibrant personality in the room. She loved her daughters and did her best to raise them well, but as her mental state deteriorated, Norma spoke less about Chopin and more about Nazis and her fear that her daughters would be kidnapped, murdered, or raped.

When the girls left for college, the harassment escalated--Norma called them obsessively, appeared at their apartments or jobs, threatened to kill herself if they did not return home. After a traumatic encounter, Mira and her sister were left with no choice but to change their names and sever all contact with Norma in order to stay safe. But while Mira pursued her career as an artist--exploring the ancient romance of Florence, the eerie mysticism of northern Norway, and the raw desert of Israel--the haunting memories of her mother were never far away.

Then one day, Mira’s life changed forever after a debilitating car accident. As she struggled to recover from a traumatic brain injury, she was confronted with a need to recontextualize her life--she had to relearn how to paint, read, and interact with the outside world. In her search for a way back to her lost self, Mira reached out to the homeless shelter where she believed her mother was living and discovered that Norma was dying.

Mira and her sister traveled to Cleveland, where they shared an extraordinary reconciliation with their mother that none of them had thought possible. At the hospital, Mira discovered a set of keys that opened a storage unit Norma had been keeping for seventeen years. Filled with family photos, childhood toys, and ephemera from Norma’s life, the storage unit brought back a flood of previous memories that Mira had thought were lost to her forever.

The Memory Palace is a breathtaking literary memoir about the complex meaning of love, truth, and the capacity for forgiveness among family. Through stunning prose and original art created by the author in tandem with the text, The Memory Palace explores the connections between mother and daughter that cannot be broken no matter how much exists--or is lost--between them.

Homeless

The Memory PalaceA homeless woman, let’s call her my mother for now, or yours, sits on a window ledge in late afternoon in a working-class neighborhood in Cleveland, or it could be Baltimore or Detroit. She is five stories up, and below the ambulance is waiting, red lights flashing in the rain. The woman thinks they’re the red eyes of a leopard from her dream last night. The voices below tell her not to jump, but the ones in her head are winning. In her story there are leopards on every corner, men with wild teeth and cat bodies, tails as long as rivers. If she opens her arms into wings she must cross a bridge of fire, battle four horses and riders. I am a swan, a spindle, a falcon, a bear. The men below call up to save her, cast their nets to lure her down, but she knows she cannot reach the garden without the distant journey. She opens her arms to enter the land of birds and fire. I will become wind, bone, blood, and memory. And the red eyes below are amazed to see just how ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
This reading group guide for The Memory Palace includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Mira Bartók.The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction


When piano prodigy Norma Herr was well, she was the most vibrant personality in the room. But as her schizophrenic episodes became more frequent and more dangerous, she withdrew into a world that neither of her daughters could make any sense of. After being violently attacked for demanding that Norma seek ...
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  • award image

    National Book Critics Circle Award
    2012

Reviews

BookBrowse

Bartók's descriptions are given great care and are told with poetry. She portrays the respite of her grandparents' backyard - the plum and pear trees, the birds and plants she loves so much - with the same detail as she describes the suffocating cigarette smoke, her grandfather's alcoholism and abuse, and the constant drone of fear in her life. Above all, what makes this book truly outstanding is Bartók's meditation on the role of memory and its relationship to human connection.   (Reviewed by Elena Spagnolie).

Full Review Members Only (1188 words).

Media Reviews
Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A disturbing, mesmerizing personal narrative about growing up with a brilliant but schizophrenic mother...Richly textured, compassionate and heartbreaking.

Library Journal

Neither sensational nor cagily sentimental nor self pitying, this grounded, exquisitely written work...requires reading.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Bartók turns these strangely parallel narratives and overlapping wonders into a haunting, almost patchwork, narrative that lyrically chronicles a complex mother-daughter relationship.

Booklist

Starred Review. Poignant, powerful, disturbing, and exceedingly well-written, this is an unforgettable memoir of loss and recovery, love and forgiveness.

Author Blurb Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Memory Palace is almost a fairy tale: two little girls grow up under the spell of their mother's madness. But it really did happen, once upon a time, and Mira Bartók uses her considerable powers of recollection and compassion to understand her family and to present them to readers as complete, loved human beings. This is an extraordinary book.

Reader Reviews
Jes

Rambling with Good Moments
The book and its story line is good. There are very concise moments that really show case mental illness or TBI's. The book however rambles on which takes away from what is being shared (IMO) however attest that to the authors own head injury. If ...   Read More

Louise Jolly

Such Sadness
Mira and her sister Natalia, grow up under the veil of their mother’s madness. Norma was a schizophrenic often given to crazy outbursts, physical attacks on the girls, strings of verbal vulgarity, and generally making a nuisance of herself. Norma ...   Read More

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Schizophrenia

What is schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that distorts a person's sense of reality. It impedes a person's ability to regulate his or her emotions and often makes socializing, decision making and logical thinking very difficult. As set forth by the US National Library of Medicine, there are multiple kinds of schizophrenia: paranoid, disorganized, catatonic, undifferentiated, and residual (more info). Formerly referred to as dementia praecox (literally premature dementia), the term "schizophrenia" was coined in 1910 by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler and comes from the Greek roots: skhizein meaning "split" and phren meaning "heart, mind." According to the National Institute of Mental Health, schizophrenia ...

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