Schizophrenia runs throughout this intriguing novel, both in its structure and in its content. The book is divided into abruptly separate sections, describing Charlotte’s childhood with her grandparents, Winnie and Lionel, in Montrose; a brief, disastrous stay with her recently remarried mother Katrinka in a prefabricated home in Redondo Beach; a return to her repressive, eccentric grandparents; and another attempt at living with her mother in a trailer home on the fairgrounds where her mother is a ventriloquist. The narrative is not chronological, and in this way, the book’s structure contributes to the reader’s own loss of control, allowing a paradoxical affinity with Charlotte’s own struggle to make sense of her life.
Each character is so self-involved that no one is able to communicate with anyone else, leaving the reader unsettled and disjointed. As a result of their desperate desire to be normal, all the characters have become isolated from the reality of which they want to be a part. Charlotte’s mother, Katrinka, is a diagnosed schizophrenic who has been through shock therapy. As a result, Katrinka’s memory is fragmented, and her ability to deal with the present and with Charlotte is humorously episodic at best and a psychological nightmare at worst. Charlotte’s grandparents are equally insane in their fanatically conservative refusal to cope with a changing world.
In the middle of this daily madness, Charlotte focuses obsessively on her father, who died before she was born, as a source of sanity. Her father’s death represents a grim, concrete reality whose details she vividly imagines when she needs to escape from the bizarre life she leads with her family. Penetrating Katrinka’s disconnected memory, however, is a mother’s love for her daughter, a love which finally frees Charlotte from her own dangerous obsession with her past.