When the writer Susie Boyt was twenty years old, her boyfriend died in a climbing accident. After the funeral, Boyt went through severe depression, struggling with a grief that she couldn’t readily articulate to others. Eschewing the sympathy of friends and psychiatrists alike, Boyt sought help from an unlikely source: from autumn, 1989, to summer, 1990, she watched “Judy Garland: The Concert Years” every day. As Boyt recounts in her 2009 memoir, “My Judy Garland Life,” communing with the eighty-eight-minute PBS special featuring some of Garland’s most famous performances was, for a time, her only solace—a near-religious “extreme daily psychic pain ritual” in the solitary confines of her drafty living room. The pathos of Garland’s ecstatic renditions enabled Boyt to begin to work through her grief. “We sat it out together,” she writes, “and it kept me functioning in a very modest way, until the experts came in.”
Boyt is no stranger to the everyday practices that sustain the psyche. “I was born into a family that takes making people feel better very seriously,” a chapter of “My Judy Garland Life” begins. This is an understatement: her great-grandfather was Sigmund Freud, the founding theorist of psychoanalysis. Born in London in 1969, Boyt is the youngest child of the British painter Lucian Freud and Suzy Boyt. (The latter, who trained as a painter, was one of Lucian’s pupils at art school.) The couple separated before Boyt’s birth, and her mother raised the children alone. Their “normal lives were straitened, no-frills, occasionally austere,” yet Boyt remembers Christmases as distinctly extravagant. Her mother’s “legendary” Christmas stockings (in fact just pairs of tights) were always “crammed with all manner of delights.” Gifts themselves could be transformative, while the holidays were at once “luxurious and sustaining.”
Boyt was a sensitive child who quickly picked up “the art of consolation.” She remembers how, growing up, the phone was forever ringing, her friends calling to seek advice on subjects from “delinquent parents” to “lemon meringue pie.” Boyt’s approach was “one of acute listening paired with high-octane cheerleading,” a two-pronged strategy that could turn someone’s mood around in half an hour. “I got results,” she recalls. But when Boyt trained as a bereavement counsellor in her mid-twenties, a few years after her boyfriend’s death, her “attitude toward consolation shifted subtly.” The art of consolation, she learned, is hard to master. Although some people in despair want support that is diversionary—the kind that distracts and cheers—others desire nothing more than that you sit with them in their suffering: “Distressed people need to be allowed to reject your optimism now and then without taking responsibility for your hurt or alarm.” This, for the compulsive caretaker, can be difficult to manage. As Boyt grows older, her powers of consolation expand—she seems to come to understand that caring for others also entails acknowledging one’s own limits.
Boyt started publishing fiction in her late twenties. Her novels often dramatize the complex negotiations that come with making people feel better. They feature protagonists who take care of others but are less sure about how to care for themselves.“The Normal Man” (1996) follows the love life of a young woman who struggles with both disordered eating and with taking care of her grieving mother following the death of her father. “The Characters of Love” (1997) involves a psychiatrist who, despite having a special interest in child development, is largely absent from his daughter’s upbringing. In “Only Human” (2004), the protagonist, Marjorie, is a marriage counsellor whose own husband died months after their daughter’s birth. Grief makes her almost comically bad at her job, and she is desperate to keep her clients’ marriages intact as a means to cope with the loss of her own.
Ruth, the central figure of “Loved and Missed,” is another professional caretaker, a schoolteacher who mentors teen-age girls who look to her for guidance. “They called me mum sometimes,” she notes, “the younger ones.” Yet Ruth’s pedagogical talents fail her when it comes to her own daughter, Eleanor—who, we learn, left home at fifteen and suffers from a severe drug addiction. Eleanor repeatedly rejects her care, leaving Ruth to wonder whether “the economy of sympathy had a different cellular structure” between blood relations.
Ruth and Eleanor’s vexed relationship falls into a predictable pattern. The mother desperately endeavors to care for her withholding daughter; the daughter evades her efforts. The novel is largely narrated from Ruth’s perspective, her voice warm, at times excessively so. Eleanor, meanwhile, hovers forbiddingly in the margins. We know only that she is in pain; her brief appearances, when she’s not getting high, just serve to render her more unreachable as a character. “I was often slow on the uptake where Eleanor was concerned, the last to know my own thoughts and actions even,” Ruth reflects, the sentence grammatically performing the way information is delivered in the novel, through small shocks and delayed revelations. In flashes of Ruth’s retrospection, we glean the outlines of Eleanor’s childhood: that she was born out of wedlock, that her father was largely absent, that “a few weeks after she hit thirteen . . . she swung her love away” from her mother. “She’d tell it differently, of course,” Ruth concedes, “but she wouldn’t talk to me.”
Ruth narrates her side of the story by way of skewed analogies, likening Eleanor’s teen-age derision to “a particular species of domestic violence” and comparing her attempts to find her daughter during late nights to those of a “Victorian infant trying to track down its errant father.” Eleanor may be addicted to drugs, but Ruth is helplessly, hopelessly addicted to Eleanor. Ruth tries to care for her daughter, but her daughter sets all their rules of engagement. “I really didn’t know what was fair,” she confesses, “let alone what was allowed.” For Ruth, being the mother to an addict is a kind of unrequited love; Eleanor remains powerful in her absence, like a beautiful but scornful paramour. On the rare occasions when her daughter does visit, Ruth marvels at her futile dependence on Eleanor: “I never understood why her eating filled me up.” Ruth’s insistence on caring for Eleanor risks increasing the guilt she feels over enabling her daughter; the more she gives, the less hope Eleanor seems to have of giving up her addiction.
In Boyt’s fiction, food is often the battleground on which women wage war against one another, not to mention themselves. The opening chapter of “Loved and Missed” depicts, in excruciating yet tender detail, one of the bleaker Christmas meals I’ve encountered in literature. Ruth, like Boyt, believes in the restorative effects of Christmastime and manages to persuade Eleanor and her boyfriend, Ben—also a drug addict—to meet for a holiday lunch. Ruth suggests a picnic at Regent’s Park, “somewhere with a sense of occasion,” but Eleanor counters with a bus-stop bench on “a modest strip of grass next to a main road.” When they meet, Ruth is armed with a bag crammed with all manner of seasonal treats, festive cloths, gold paper plates, a “tall red candle in an eggcup,” and even a box of Turkish delight. Eleanor rejects the entire performance by refusing to eat.
It’s a harrowing sequence, saved only by Eleanor announcing, at the end, with tentative optimism, that she’s pregnant. But the promise of bringing another daughter into this family is also a threat of grief compounded: here is just one more life that risks being ruined. Upon birth, the baby, Lily, is soon given “tiny amounts of morphine because she was having trouble sleeping and feeding and she was weak and in distress.” Ruth watches “the morphine going into her system” with rising horror and worries aloud to the nurse, “What if that’s all she wants now?” Seven months later, at Lily’s christening, Ruth decides to take matters—which is to say, her granddaughter—into her own hands. That morning, she sells a Walter Richard Sickert painting (“the best thing I had”) to a wiry man “with a stale Dickensian pallor” for four thousand pounds and, when the ceremony is over, gives the money—a hazardous amount of cash for any addict—to Eleanor and Ben in exchange for taking Lily home for a week. After the first week, upon seeing the state of the couple’s flat, Ruth decides to keep her. An unspoken agreement is established: Ruth will raise her granddaughter and Eleanor will visit when she can, which turns out to be infrequently and erratically.