Queen for a Day: A Nov­el in Stories

Max­ine Rosaler

  • Review
By – February 4, 2019

Max­ine Rosaler’s heart­break­ing nov­el in sto­ries pays stark tes­ta­ment to the chron­ic stress of being a moth­er of a child with autism.

Mimi Slavitt knows that some­thing is deeply dif­fer­ent about her son Dan­ny: Some­thing was grow­ing in our emo­tion­al lives, some­thing ter­ri­ble that we couldn’t put a name to.” She and her hus­band Jake are briefly reas­sured by an incom­pe­tent ther­a­pist who tells them their son “[doesn’t] have any­thing you could pin a label on.’” She attends a series of sem­i­nars on child dis­ci­pline, and it slow­ly dawns on her that most of the oth­er par­ents’ chil­dren are autis­tic. I decid­ed that I had been sent there by mis­take. There was no deny­ing I had a dif­fi­cult child, but he was noth­ing like these children.”

Danny’s diag­no­sis plunges Mimi into an alter­nate and lone­ly uni­verse. In chap­ters told from alter­nat­ing points of view, we see the lives of the women she befriends, each com­pli­cat­ed and often dis­turbing­ly unpre­pared for the work of par­ent­ing a child with spe­cial needs. There’s a famil­iar say­ing in the autism com­mu­ni­ty that once you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” Each child is unique; so is each par­ent. Often these moth­ers have noth­ing in com­mon except their child’s diag­no­sis. Des­per­a­tion affects each one dif­fer­ent­ly; they seek mir­a­cle cures from snake oil sales­men, hire advo­cates and ther­a­pists who mis­lead and cheat, con­sid­er shock­ing treat­ments and solu­tions. All of them lay siege to the byzan­tine bureau­cra­cy of the spe­cial edu­ca­tion sys­tem, chill­ing­ly referred to sim­ply as The Dis­trict,” an omnipo­tent, Orwellian force whose pol­i­cy, thinks Mimi, is to scare par­ents into submission.

A New York Jew­ish sen­si­bil­i­ty informs much of the book. Mimi and her fam­i­ly live in the Jew­ish enclave of Wash­ing­ton Heights; their land­lord is a Holo­caust sur­vivor. Mimi, who was raised in a Con­ser­v­a­tive Jew­ish home, decid­ed at the age of twelve that she was an athe­ist. If any­thing could have dri­ven Mimi to seek com­fort in reli­gion, Danny’s diag­no­sis would have. But it didn’t.” Still, she sends Dan­ny to a spe­cial edu­ca­tion yeshi­va, ratio­nal­iz­ing that peo­ple with autism love rules, and Ortho­dox Jews live strict­ly. When they can no longer afford tuition, though, she’s forced to send him to pub­lic school where he is thrown togeth­er with Howard, a stu­dent with whom he has noth­ing in com­mon except their sta­tus as social outcasts.

On the eve of Howard’s bar mitz­vah, Howard’s moth­er Avi­va is dis­mayed to real­ize Dan­ny is the clos­est thing to a friend her son has ever had — it hor­ri­fied Avi­va to think of her son being iden­ti­fied with a child who was so clear­ly impaired.” This scene illu­mi­nates that even on what should be a joy­ous occa­sion, par­ent­ing a devel­op­men­tal­ly dis­abled child is fraught with ten­sion, mis­steps, and painful consequences.

Though cred­i­ble and com­plex, many of these char­ac­ters are deeply unlike­able and judg­men­tal of each other’s chil­dren and choic­es, with back­sto­ries that sug­gest lives that were bro­ken long before they became par­ents. This is a world that Ros­aler, her­self the par­ent of an autis­tic child, knows inti­mate­ly. At times the book — which skill­ful­ly evokes the iso­la­tion and ambiva­lence of par­ent­ing a child who is dif­fer­ent — reads more like mem­oir than fic­tion, blur­ring the line between the two genres.

And yet, despite the betray­als, dis­ap­point­ments, and ram­pant anx­i­ety, Ros­aler won­der­ful­ly evokes the phys­i­cal­i­ty of ear­ly moth­er­hood, and offers mov­ing moments of relief — the lilac bush on Mimi’s street in full bloom, a ragged street musi­cian play­ing a jazz tune she loves, a young sopra­no on the sub­way plat­form in a tutu with fairy wings singing an aria. Mimi would stop and lis­ten, and for those few moments, every­thing else in the bat­tle­field of her exis­tence would dis­ap­pear and the only thing that would exist for her was all this beauty.”

Raw, can­did and deft­ly writ­ten, Queen for a Day crack­les with tren­chant obser­va­tions and edgy gal­lows humor. Though Mimi makes choic­es the read­er will ques­tion, we nev­er doubt the deep, fierce love she feels for her son.

Liane is a nation­al­ly-known writer and advo­cate for the autism com­mu­ni­ty. Her work has appeared in numer­ous pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing The New York Times, the Chica­go Tri­bune, The Huff­in­g­ton Post, Tikkun, Kveller, and Par­ents Mag­a­zine. She is a co-author of the Autism Speaks Advo­ca­cy Took Kit.

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