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The Center of the Universe: A Memoir
by Nancy Bachrach

Published: 2010-05-04
Paperback : 256 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 1 of 2 members
The story is so improbable, it can only be true: A brilliant woman with a long history of mental illness — who once proclaimed herself to be "the center of the universe" — is miraculously cured by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning aboard the family boat. Nancy Bachrach warns readers, ...
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The story is so improbable, it can only be true: A brilliant woman with a long history of mental illness — who once proclaimed herself to be "the center of the universe" — is miraculously cured by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning aboard the family boat. Nancy Bachrach warns readers, “Don’t try this at home” in her darkly humorous memoir about “the second coming” of her mother — the indomitable Lola, whose buried family secrets had been driving her crazy. Aching and tender, unflinching and wry, The Center of the Universe is a multigenerational mother-daughter story—a splendid, funny, lyrical memoir about family, truth, and the resilience of love. Nancy Bachrach worked in advertising in New York and Paris, spinning hot air like cotton candy. Before that, she was a teaching assistant in the philosophy department at Brandeis University, where she was one chapter ahead of her class. She lives in New York City. This is her first book.

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Chapter One: Things Fall Apart


In the ancient forest on the Right Bank of Paris lies a jewel-like island where Napoleon, just back from the Alps, built a Swiss chalet. Emerald lawns and ruby flowers shimmer beside a sapphire lake as peacocks stride by. On a sunny Sunday morning in May, I am ensconced on the chalet's terrace, now a café, replenishing more energy than my leisurely jog has exhausted. Around me, lazy hands stir sugar cubes in slow circles and spread butter on crusty baguettes. These are the only signs of industry in a city where the principal exercises are digestion and strolling, where laissez-faire is practiced and preached, where intermission is the pace of life. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

Discussion guide for book clubs from the author

The characters
1. Tolstoy wrote that “All happy families are alike, and all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” How is the family in this book unique?
2. Lola, the book’s main character, proclaimed herself to be “THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE.” Why was this traumatic for her family?
3. The author’s father, Mort, was nicknamed “Mr. Fix It.” Was his death just bad luck? An unavoidable accident? Predictable? Fate?
4. “Lies have latitude and longitude. Lies can be extended, magnified, hedged, contradicted, circumvented, and denied. The truth, on the other hand, is a forkless road with a dead end.” Whose philosophy is this in the book? And how does it shape her life and her family’s?
5. The author’s brother Ben -- who was born with three thumbs -- was a piano prodigy and eventual surgeon. Did his handicap add to his motivation?
6. Ben “made Chopin the sound track of my childhood -- and the melancholy nocturnes and heartbreaking ballades that poured out of him poured right into me.” What role does music play in the book, and how does it help heal the family?
7. Writing about her little sister, Nancy says: “Poor Helen was born after the roles of ‘smart’ and ‘musical’ were already cast and had to create a new identity from scratch.” How did being the third child shape “Hellish”?
8. This is a story about a family that healed itself. What resources did the author and her siblings call upon to turn their dysfunctional childhood into highly-functioning adult lives? Do you think the problems they faced contributed to their close bond?
9. “Play the hand you’re dealt,” Nana said. “Count. Don’t try to beat the odds. No bluffing...and you gotta know when to fold.” How were Nana’s rules of poker a metaphor for guiding her three grandchildren? Was she their “savior”?

After the accident
10. Describing Lola after the accident, Nancy writes: “Lola’s mind may lack torque, but her heart is a cheerful rudder.” Given a choice between brains and heart, which would you prefer?
11. After all the years of treating her mother “like she was a virus I might catch,” what precipitated Nancy’s realization that she loved Lola?
12. “This is a book about second chances,” the author has said. How does she use her second chance with her mother?
13. Lola wanted the memoir’s title to be Love Story. In what ways is this book a “love story”?
14. Nancy learned from a high school science experiment that “you never really know what’s going on inside anything.” How did that shape her thinking about Lola after the accident?
15. After the accident, when Lola began to deteriorate, Nancy writes: “I may represent Disaster, but I am also Rescue.” Was this true?
16. After the accident, Lola’s neurologist told Nancy that “hope would be counter-productive.” How would you react if a doctor said that to you?

The author’s style
17. Despite the gravity of the subject—life with a charismatic but mentally ill mother—this memoir is filled with humor. The author has commented that her family wasn’t laughing at the time, “but through a long lens (and after enough therapy), this tragedy revealed a comic underbelly.” How did her dark humor affect you?
18. James Thurber wrote that humor is chaos in retrospect. How did Nancy’s chaotic childhood shape her voice and her perspective?
19. A reviewer commented that this book “says the unsayable.” Do you agree? Can you give examples? What impact did that have on you when you were reading the story?
20. Another reviewer called the story “unsentimental – and all the more moving for it.” How did the author’s restraint (and lack of self-pity) affect your enjoyment in reading the book?
21. During a radio interview with Nancy Bachrach, the interviewer asked whether Lola had ever “apologized” to her children. Did Lola owe her children an apology for the way they were raised?
22. One reviewer wrote: “By the time the book ends, love has conquered chaos, tenderness flows like a healing balm and Lola's insistence that she is ‘the center of the universe’ doesn't seem so crazy after all.” Do you agree?

Bigger issues
23. What role do dreams play in the story? Does Nancy’s dream on the plane home from Paris (about “the old woman in the hospital bed, and the blank newspaper that only the nun could read, and the clock without hands”) portend the future?
24. In the Author’s Note, Nancy writes: “Memory is so fragile that even perspective can distort it.” What does it mean to write a memoir after admitting that memory is flawed?
25. Nancy writes that her ancestors’ craziness was their “biochemical itinerary.” How much do genes control character? What role does experience play? And how did Lola’s childhood environment affect her sanity?
26. The author summarizes a major theological argument: If God is good and has unlimited power, why is there evil in the world? “Is god up there listening, but not interested in helping? Or would he like to help but he’s unable to intervene? Which is worse? Does it matter?” How would you respond to these questions?
27. “We all believe what we need to believe no matter how cultivated our skeptical principles.” Is this a definition of hope? Is it true in your own life?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Dear Reader,

My parents were in their fifties, asleep on their boat, when a carbon monoxide leak killed my father. My mother -- whose prior medical history read like the chapter headings of a psychiatric manual -- was on death’s waiting list, in a coma. Yet somehow she survived. Then miraculously, the poison accomplished what lifelong psychotherapy had not: it cured her mental illness. Since then, I have to warn people, Don’t try this at home.

Thurber said that humor is chaos in retrospect. Looking back, our family tragedy revealed a dark comic underbelly and an unpredictable flipside. This is a memoir about bad medicine, enduring hope, and second chances.

To win one of five signed copies, please contact me at www.nancybachrach.com

Happy reading!

Nancy Bachrach

"A darkly comedic style that recalls David Sedaris. Haunting...a dazzling read." —San Francisco Chronicle

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "A look back"by Laurie D. (see profile) 09/03/09

I think it is very hard to objectively look back at one's childhood. While I can't imagine being the eldest sibling of three with a manic mother and surving, I am even more impressed that not only did... (read more)

  "Great memoir!"by Suzann S. (see profile) 08/06/09

I really enjoyed this book (as did others in my book club)! The author takes her families tragedy and tells it in such a way that I was intrigued by this book and the "character" of Ms. Bachrach's mother.... (read more)

  "The Center of the Universe: A Memoir"by Christine C. (see profile) 01/17/11

This book was very disappointing. I did not care for the writing. The only thing I liked was that, since I'm familar with Providence and vicinity, I knew some of the places the author mentioned.

  "The Center of the Universe"by Laura G. (see profile) 07/06/10

  "A very funny story of growing up"by Laura G. (see profile) 11/17/09

The author keeps the humor on every page of her dysfunctional childhood. I laughed out loud and couldn't put it down!

  "Funny & Poignant"by Jody C. (see profile) 08/19/09

I really enjoyed the story. She does an excellent job taking the reader through her journey to accepting her mother for who she is. Funny and poignant, great read!

  "A Must Read!"by Kelly S. (see profile) 08/15/09

What an amazing story told in such a way that you understand what the author and her family must have gone through. Lola is a wonderful character that you will have no choice but to love.

  "Makes you think"by Lisa H. (see profile) 08/10/09

At first I was sad to read about a woman who is manic but as I read further, I became interested in how she lived her life and how Nancy and her siblings survived. I was glad to learn that Lola is still... (read more)

  "Not engaging to me"by Courtney M. (see profile) 06/15/09

This book wasn't interesting enough to get me into it. I was not intrigued by her life -- just saddened about it.

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