Review: Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter’s Last Goodbye by Ann Putnam

Review by Melissa Frederick

Full moon at noontide cover three boats in wavesA lot of effort has gone into the publication of Ann Putnam’s memoir Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter’s Last Goodbye (University of Iowa Press, 2015). Six years before it came out in the current paperback edition, the book was released in hardback by a different university press. There are not one, but two prefatory essays by famous doctors introducing readers to Putnam’s work, as well as a long list of glowing blurbs from highly pedigreed literary figures, including a National Book Award winner and an editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature.

It’s too bad Full Moon at Noontide isn’t a better book.

Putnam’s memoir is an extended account of her parents’ and uncle’s final years together after her father suffers a debilitating stroke. Her uncle Henry is her father’s identical twin; when the story begins, Henry and Putnam’s parents have lived as a threesome for over twenty years. The aftermath of the stroke sets off a cascade of health problems, anxiety, fear, and upheaval that leads more or less directly to the deaths of all three family members. Also, in a cruel twist that would be completely implausible if it happened in fiction, Putnam’s husband dies of cancer as she’s finishing the manuscript. This new loss overshadows the painfully slow decline of the earlier three—a subtle reminder that the process of yielding up a loved one to death can happen at any time, even when we’re still recuperating from the last cycle.

The problem with Putnam’s book lies in the strange, plodding, almost tenacious way the plot focuses on the details of her parents’ and uncle’s deterioration. The “long goodbye” mentioned in the book’s subtitle is exactly that—a book-length account of the Cunningham family’s death march, including every medical emergency, slip and fall, unexpected bleed, moment of confusion, stubborn insistence on clinging to the past, careless doctor’s remark, and personal indignity along the way. The emotional tone created by the narrative is one of constant dread. Each chapter coincides with one large or small emotionally traumatic event—the father’s stroke, the wedding where all three family members fall, the move to a retirement community, a series of hospitalizations over the course of a few days—and each is punctuated by Putnam bellowing at the universe for making her parents endure such misery.

This is not to say, of course, that these feelings of despair and soul-shattering rage are unfit for a memoir about death. Far from it: a true tale of any death would be dishonest if it didn’t incorporate the ugly realities of grieving. But a memoir that only describes the awful moments of a person’s last days creates an equally unrealistic picture of what life is like when one is actively dying. By making the story so uniformly bleak, Putnam reduces her mother, father, and uncle to one-dimensional sufferers moving through perpetual twilight, barren and bland and broken only by an occasional bittersweet reflection on the way life used to be.

For me, this can’t be the only lesson learned from a loved one’s prolonged descent into death. Even when it’s slowly bleeding away, life always seems to find an out so that other emotions—desire, giddiness, even pleasure—come to the fore. In my experience, waiting through severe illness or another’s declining health can bring everyone together. It can make you see the world in a different way, feel the solidity of your own body, or give you the freedom to laugh like a maniac. You and your fellow sufferers become soldiers in a theater of the absurd. The experience can be profound and life affirming as much as it is sad.

Of course, this may not have been how Putnam felt as she watched her once powerful and intellectual parents fade into shadows of their former selves. That’s certainly valid. But in memoir, the nuances of experience have to be probed, weighed, evaluated and analyzed—particularly when they diverge from the usual stories we like to tell ourselves (for example, that watching someone die is a purely transcendent event). Putnam’s book does none of the internal work that makes a memoir an exploration of something new and unheard of, and so instead the story reads like a rush from one disaster to the next.

This is not to say that Putnam’s book doesn’t have its moments. Her writing style can be quite lyrical. During a break from the general awfulness, Putnam describes looking out at a sunset over Puget Sound and in that description manages to capture the instant of relief that we often try to live in when things are going wrong. The final three chapters of the book are far more effective and powerful than almost everything that comes before them, and the coda about her husband’s death provides a glimpse of what she didn’t (or perhaps couldn’t) write as she put into words the earlier deaths she witnessed. Those final passages did, in fact, move me to tears and make me reflect on how I would function standing in a hospice room and waiting on a loved one’s last breath. Yet three chapters aren’t strong enough to support a 250-page narrative that has essentially told the same story over and over again: This Is Death. This Is How It Happened. As a reader, I wish Putnam had spent less time on This Is How It Happened and more time on This Is Where We Found Ourselves, or This Is What We Did Next.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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