Alzheimer's Book Club: "We Are the Brennans"

I took a rest day recently to dive into a book that had been sitting on my book shelf for longer than I would care to admit, quite frankly. I had selected We are the Brennans because this novel about a raucous Irish Catholic family living in New England seemed like I would feel right at home! In fact, I did feel those give and take moments that come with having multiple siblings, involved in their own shenanigans, but who choose to come together and be there for one another. So, I wasn't wrong.

What I wasn't prepared to find was an aging patriarch who had memory problems. So, let's get into it.


We are the Brennans is a present-day contemporary fiction about the Brennan's, a family flourishing in a suburb of New York. Four children, a bonus kid/best friend, make up a bulk of the story, in addition to the ghost of their mother, whose opinions and actions continue to have on the family's life years after her passing, and a father, who worked construction for most of his life and emigrated from Ireland with his bride to settle down and create a family, exactly what they did.

We pick up the story as the only daughter, Sunday, gets into a car accident on her wayward journey for independence (or perhaps an escape effort) in Los Angeles. Her big brother answers the emergency call, asks her to come home to recover, and so the unfurling of this story begins.

Depicting dementia

The first thing I found true-to-life is that Mickey's dementia is only alluded to as aging memory problems. His kids think he is too proud to see a doctor when he is, in fact, only too proud to tell them that he already saw a doctor. He hides a book where he writes down important things he needs to remember and hides it in the floor boards. As we all know all too well, this journey is a daunting one to undertake. It's often met with resistance and denial, so I felt this aspect was very true.

This book also switches perspectives, and we spend time with each of the main characters narrating portions of the book. I was relieved to see that Mickey was no exception to this. The few chapters in which he was our guide expressed things like being aware of a bartender's weariness as he asked a question, which triggered Mickey to believe that he had already asked it. But mostly they are filled with compassionate attention to his children and their needs, albeit with some betting and drinking on the side as one might expect from an old Irishman.

Multifaceted character

The readers see Mickey writing things in his book to remember; we also see him laser-focused on a task. I appreciate that the author included both and I think this is a nuance that people sometimes don't understand.

I also really appreciated the moments where Mickey had to assert himself. Throughout the book, he is an afterthought as a person, seen more as a child to be taken care of at this stage in his life. However, there were moments when he wasn't playing that role, where he was totally in charge of his faculties and wanted to know what was going on. As he takes action, he has to do something to pierce through the veil of feeble-mindedness they have placed over him, and he does so by raising his voice or slapping the table, getting into the face of his kids and demanding answers. Throughout most of the book, he is content to be on the sidelines, having been in the game and taking charge for much of his life. However, when he does not, we know it. I feel that this is an accurate description of early dementia and Alzheimer's.

Celebrating the here and now

The assumption of young people to place someone on the back burner, to deny them their full humanity almost, is definitely something that resonates within this community. I see it in the comments on our mid-week check-ins and in my own life, as my Pop was placed in a corner and talked around. More and more, I'm seeing people stick up for this human, he's still here, he's still present, he's still engaging, and that should be encouraged and celebrated for as long as possible.

Although not the centerpiece of this book, I thoroughly enjoyed this representation in a contemporary fiction book and hope to see more of it in the future. As we all know, Alzheimer's and dementia are with us for some time to come.

Have you read this book? What do you think?

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