2 reviews

The Center of the Universe: A Memoir
by Nancy Bachrach

Published: 2010-05-04
Paperback : 256 pages
20 members reading this now
5 clubs reading this now
3 members have read this book
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, ...
No other editions available.
Add to Club Selections
Add to Possible Club Selections
Add to My Personal Queue
Jump to


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.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


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.

I saunter through the woods toward my apartment as the ladies of the night flee daylight like vampires stumbling upon a cross. I know one of the Brazilians by name, since I pass her most mornings as she's wrapping up her night's work in tissues. Alexandro has just become Alexandra. Like her, I came to Paris to reinvent myself three years ago. Although I had no surgery, I did change my name, and while no one calls me a prostitute, sometimes I feel like one, admittedly, in another old and unlofty profession, advertising.

I've been relocated from headquarters in New York to tackle a marketing emergency for an important toiletries client -- the launch of France's first sorely needed antiperspirant. Our team on the Seine -- ninety-nine people smoking and loitering above a gas station -- won the coveted assignment (code-named Stink-o) even though they've failed for a decade to browbeat their countrymen into American bar soap. Which is why someone very high up at bar soap headquarters, someone with a good nose but a rarely used passport, smells an untapped market for deodorants over here, and although I can imagine the logic that led to this conclusion (and my relocation), the person who reached it hasn't had to sit through forty focus groups in unventilated conference rooms in the provinces. Getting the natives to “adopt” a roll-on, stick, or spray will require “a paradigm shift,” I'm learning, a long and winding road that's synonymous with a huge media budget and then, usually, failure. What would make the French -- who relish the bleu on their cheese and their skin, who have a whole class of things they fondly call “stinky” -- what would make them plug up their pores with wax to placate and enrich our big American client? This is the onerous marketing dilemma I face daily in my otherwise idyllic life in the City of Light.

To help me think through the Stink-o conundrum, I have the Semis -- a squadron of French semiologists, not just translators but also linguists and cogitators, who are deconstructing the semantics of our antiperspirancy muddle. Not solving it exactly, just scrutinizing it in the Gallic way, ad nauseam. For my edification, the Semis are writing a treatise on perspiration, its cultural heritage, its evolutionary value, its distillation of primeval body essences. My task is to develop a successful campaign against sweat, when it rivals the madeleine in the collective olfactory unconscious.

Tucked behind a manicured garden in the Sixteenth Arrondissement is the elegant rue where I live -- in a Beaux-Arts town house with a tiny filigreed elevator, where I would imagine Maurice Chevalier crooning to Leslie Caron even if “Gigi” weren't playing on the concierge's stereo. From my apartment on the top floor -- four rooms with high ceilings and crown moldings, eight times the size of my New York studio, thanks to the value of the dollar under Reagan -- there's a postcard view of the tip of the Eiffel Tower, which I am admiring through open windows, when my phone rings.

The connection has a bad echo, so it's an overseas call, although it's two in the morning in the States.

Surely, as the poet said, some revelation is at hand.

My brother, Ben, weeping hello, sounds both frantic and measured. He tells me he has “terrible news.” He says I'd better “prepare” myself.

I have never had any idea what to do after someone says “prepare yourself,” since the warning itself is an angst infusion.

“Sssxxzzz is dead,” Ben says, but the ocean is sloshing against underwater cables, making puddles of noise in his words.

“Who? Who's dead?” This is the moment when time collapses, when what hasn't yet been said feels like déjà vu.

“DAD!” he shouts. “DAD is dead.”

The echo repeats his words. “Dad is dead -- dad is dead.”

Our father is fifty-eight -- a vigorous, athletic, handsome fifty-eight. “Boyish” is the first thing people call him, not always as a compliment.

“Dad is dead? How?”

“The boat -- the boat.”

That is explanation enough.

Facing me is a photo of our father aboard his secondhand fourteen-year-old “cabin cruiser,” the Mr. Fix It, unwrapping my last birthday gift -- an inflatable life raft. Spouting the Coast Guard motto, Semper Paratus, he is, or was, constantly fiddling with nautical instruments whose failures are legendary. Last year's close call came fifty miles off Martha's Vineyard, with no land in sight, when he and my mother happened upon a “sudden” storm -- which functioning radar or a transistor radio would have disclosed. It swept the deck furniture overboard and almost did the same to them before they strapped themselves into their seats. So it is easy to picture Mr. Fix It himself chomping on a cigar like Ralph Kramden, piloting blind from his flying bridge under a starless sky, next to a mute radio, as an unforeseen tidal wave washes over his boat (again) and drags him into the Atlantic. I glimpse his black hair bobbing in the ocean and his hands flailing as a shark circles and pokes him in the chest.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned . . .

“He drowned?”

“No, it was carbon monoxide. Dad was asphyxiated.”

I see my father get down on his knees in the galley, where he opens the oven door and puts his head inside. Resting his cheek on the oven rack, just for a moment. Deciding. He reaches for the knobs and turns them on, one at a time, and, squeezing his eyes shut, he takes a deep breath.

But the only oven on his boat is a toaster.

“How did he do it?”

“It was an accident. And Mom was with him. She's in a coma.”

The second shoe. The widening gyre.

“How long will Mom be in the coma?” I ask stupidly. I have always trusted in the omniscience of doctors, especially when the doctor is my brother. Ben is a lung specialist in New York's busiest emergency room, with a need to come to the rescue so old and so deep that only triage at Bellevue seems to satisfy it.

“I've done everything I can. It's out of my hands.”

I am afraid to ask whose hands it's in now. “Can I make it home in time?”

“She's in a little Catholic hospital at the beach for Chrissake.”

Meaning what? Is this code for pulling the plug? Or for not being able to pull the plug? I want to ask, but I don't want to ask -- having come of age in the sixties, I always assume my phone is tapped. So I keep that thought and a whole stomachache of fears to myself -- while I try not to think about Sunny von Bülow.

“I hate to say this -- I know it's awful -- but you've got to prepare yourself for a double funeral.”

How do I prepare for a double funeral? Pack two of everything? Pack clothes that are very black? The unimaginable has just happened, and the unpredictable is around the corner, and it feels like I missed my chance to prepare.

My brain screens an improvised documentary short, like a practice drill. His and hers coffins roll off an assembly line. Their sides touch in a final wooden embrace; then they linger at the edge of a double grave -- a deep pocket of dirt for two. The Mourner's Kaddish is sung, and God is glorified and sanctified for no reason I've ever been able to discern during a funeral. And then the twin boxes tip into the breach, headfirst or feetfirst -- impossible to know which; maybe one of each.

Long drum roll. Fade to very black.

Telling the story in an orderly way oversimplifies it, since truth is less tidy than prose, and maybe less plausible. Were Madame Defarge to knit the narrative, the yarn would have a dark side and a light side, and it would flip itself over and over -- a tale of quick reversals -- full of snags and dropped stitches and tangled threads. Frayed and raggedy, perhaps, but lively nonetheless.

I began taking notes for a story about my mother the minute I could write. I wrote everywhere -- on my school desk and in the margins of my books and notebooks, on paper napkins and garbage bags when there were no pads around because she was using all of them, and eventually into one diary after another. There are things I didn't write down -- not every story needs to be told -- but I recorded plenty.

On my dresser is a family photo from the fifties, of me with Ben and our little sister, Helen. We're sitting closer than we need to be in the spacious backseat of our father's yellow Chevy, dressed identically in crisp white shirts and khaki shorts, three small slightly green faces -- six, eight, and ten -- set against the smoky haze of an airtight sedan. We're on the road to summer camp in the Catskills, in uniform, with our father, Mort, behind the wheel, blowing smoke rings. Frank Sinatra is singing “Stardust” on the radio.

And now the purple dusk of twilight time

Steals across the meadows of my heart

High up in the sky the little stars climb

Always reminding me that we're apart.

Our mother, Lola, has been asleep, with her head in Mort's lap, but she wakes up spring-loaded: Her auburn curls pop up above the seat, followed by an incandescent smile. Glancing down at us in the back, she blows a theatrical kiss and gets ready to tell us a story.

“I was dreaming,” the story begins.

She waits until everyone is paying attention. Mort turns off the radio.

“I am the center of the universe,” she says, looking at each of us in turn, making sure we appreciate the significance. “And everyone else is a star revolving around me.”

This is a confession. A revelation. A pronouncement. This is the way of the world.

She is Norma Desmond, descending the staircase in Sunset Boulevard, eyes wide and frozen, getting ready for her close-up. She is Salome, stripping the veil off the face of the cosmos. She is my mother, Lola Hornstein.

And she is crazy.

Twirling her fingers in dainty arcs, she demonstrates the rotation of the solar system around her, right there in the front seat. Cupping her hands lovingly around a star to bring it closer, basking in its reflected light. She is Pivotal, the axis of a magical orbit, spinning, spinning, while the rest of us are drawn to her by gravity. I am as weightless as dust, sucked into her vacuum.

She giggles, then blushes, and her hands leave their stellar rotation to stifle a laugh. Then she chuckles and cackles until she roars.

“Cut it out, Lola.” Mort is weary.

“I am the brightest star,” she insists, peeved, since it's obvious that my father doesn't get it yet, that he needs further clarification.

But I get it: Lola could burn out fast, or she could burn out slowly. The speed is unknowable, but it's certain that a firestorm is coming. And then it will get very dark.

“But it was only a dream,” Mort says.

“It was a vision!” she responds grandly, infuriated by his impertinence. “I AM THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE!”

Widening her sphere of influence to enclose all of us, she swirls her arms majestically, and her hand grazes the wheel accidentally, making the car veer into the next lane.

Mort pushes her away.

“Knock it off. I'm driving.” He sounds angry now. I'll bet he's scared, too.

“I command you to stop this car!”

He glances over at her, then back at the road, noncommittal, and turns the radio back on.

Love is now the stardust of yesterday

The music of the years gone by.

“I'm talking to you, mister. You'd better stop this damn car right now, because I'm getting out.”

I'm rooting for getting out, too, and soon. But Mort doesn't follow orders. Mort thinks he's in charge.

So Lola leans over and reminds him who is the center of the universe -- she beats his chest like a tom-tom, chanting that she hates him. She's very convincing.

Down the two-lane road we drift, while Mort tries to bring Lola and the Chevy under control. Finally, he pulls over to the breakdown lane, and the right wheels end up on a grassy embankment like a Tilt-O-Whirl, so what seemed lopsided only a moment ago now truly is.

Lola throws her door open and runs off in her yellow sundress and sandals, weaving through thick hedges at the side of the road.

“Why is Mommy playing hide-and-seek?” my little sister asks.

Traffic slows down as people lean out their car windows, pointing at my father, who's running after my mother, who's puking tuna fish on rye, no extra mayo, please, in the bushes. When he catches her, he grabs her by the shoulders and wipes vomit off her chin with his sleeve. Then he leads her back to the car, puts her in her side, and locks her door.

Lola looks at herself in the visor mirror and reapplies her lipstick, moving the brassy tube around and around and around her thick red lips, getting ready for the next scene.

“Okay, everything's fine now,” Mort announces as he gets in, transferring tuna vomit from his shirt to the front seat.

We are halfway to Camp High Peak, three hungry birds in a wobbly nest, imprinting on an ostrich with his head in the sand while a wild hyena nips at his tail.


Copyright © 2009 by Nancy Bachrach view abbreviated excerpt only...

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.

Rate this book
Remember me

Now serving over 80,000 book clubs & ready to welcome yours. Join us and get the Top Book Club Picks of 2022 (so far).



Get free weekly updates on top club picks, book giveaways, author events and more
Please wait...