Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Bloomsbury USA  2014


The introduction to Roz Chast's memoir, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant, pictures an eight-panel, full-color comic of an aging couple sitting on the sofa beside their daughter. As the daughter precariously and awkwardly attempts to involve her parents in a talk about "things" ("What kind of things?" they ask; "Plans," she responds, adding, "I have no idea what you guys want!"), the couple throws their hands in the air, looks blankly at her, shrugs, and even laughs. "Am I the only sane person here???" she finally asks, exasperated.

This exasperation is a persistent theme in Chast's memoir, which recounts her relationship with her parents, and especially the last years of their lives, in excruciatingly honest detail. An only child, Chast finds herself bearing the brunt of her parents' transition from "the sphere of TV commercial old age" to "the part of old age that was scarier, harder to talk about, and not a part of this culture." Her parents' adamant refusal to deal with declining physical and mental health becomes an added burden, and she finds herself experiencing conflicting emotions as she commutes from Connecticut to their increasingly neglected and difficult to navigate Brooklyn apartment. Chast eventually transitions the two into assisted living facilities near her home, recounting the "painful, humiliating, long-lasting, complicated, and hideously expen­sive" trials that account for what she calls "the end."

Chast is best known for deceptively buoyant New Yorker cartoons that picture characters and objects in everyday settings, but which are mired in a sharp sensibility often looking to uncover those "harder to talk about" spheres. In this memoir she incorporates her familiarly whimsical humor alongside prose-heavy pages detailing the grief and guilt of facing what can become, for many, one of life's most challenging and solitary ordeals. To be able to recount the story of your parents' deaths might seem, to some, an overwhelming feat not worth the pain incurred. But, as readers, witnessing someone grapple with what feels impossible to discuss is, perhaps, the first step towards learning how to talk about "things." And for that, this reader is deeply grateful.

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Read Tahneer Oksman's interview with Roz Chast here.

Discussion Questions

JBC Book Clubs Questions

  1. Roz Chast is very honest about her relationship with her parents and her thoughts and feelings as they aged and grew sicker. Did you find her honesty to be an asset to the book or did it make it uncomfortable to read? Were there times when you felt more or less sympathetic toward her or identified with her more or less?

  2. Did you appreciate the visual aspects of this book? Do you think the format of a graphic novel is more or less effective for a memoir than for a fictional account? How is it different than a memoir written in prose?

  3. The experience that Chast writes about, caring for aging parents, is one that many have experienced. Were there similarities to your own family story? Did that make it easier to connect to the family or harder? Was there anything that surprised you in Chast's story? Do you think that having personal experiences with the topic would make you enjoy the book more or less?

  4. In the New York Times' review of the book, Alex Wichtel writes, "No one has perfect parents and no one can write a perfect book about her relationship to them. But Chast has come close." Do you agree?

  5. One of the blurbs for the book, by author David Small, says, "Reading Roz Chast has always had the quality of eavesdropping on a person's private mutterings to herself." Did reading this book feel like eavesdropping to you? Does that make it easier to empathize with Chast as a reader or did it make you feel like a voyeur?

  6. What do you think of Chast's portrayal of her parents? Did you find either of them to be likable, admirable, or sympathetic? Does that matter? As she illustrates their final years, do you feel like she is honoring their memories?

  7. Do you think Chast's parents were portrayed with dignity? Why or why not? If not, is there a way to tell the real story of this period of their lives while maintaining their dignity?

  8. There were several times where Chast includes non-cartoon drawings--family photographs, sketches, her mother's poems, etc. What effect did these have for you? Were they disruptive or did they add to the personal narrative and character development? What effect did the sketches of Chast's mother at the end of the book have on you? Did they change the tone of the book for you or alter your overall takeaway as a reader?

  9. What role does humor play in this book?

  10. Which aspects or scenes were most poignant?

  11. Do you think there is an overall message to this book or is it no more than a recounting of a personal story?

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