Going Backwards belongs to the genre of the adolescent family novel; problems abound, yet the home environment is ultimately reassuring and affirming. Although some of the deepest dilemmas of the human condition are faced, the family members still have time for fun and can laugh through their tears at their own foibles. There are several skillfully crafted family scenes, usually centered on the consumption of food, in which Norma Klein’s comic gift is evident. The dialogue sparkles with the rhythms and wit of this clever group of New Yorkers.
The book is also a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story in which a young person apprehensively makes the transition from dependent childhood to the responsibilities of maturity. It is the child who weeps when his once powerful grandmother regresses through Alzheimer’s disease to become only a helpless burden on the family. It is the emerging adult who must cope with sexual insecurities and the social and ethical issues raised by interracial romance and euthanasia.
Klein wrote most convincingly about the people she knew best, urban professional people of Jewish heritage. Yet, her openness to diversity was evident in the majority of her books. In Going Backwards, Charles observes the familial and social values of his Korean American best friend. His first serious romance is with an African American woman. Although this romance seems a bit contrived, Klein did prepare her readers by demonstrating Charles’s filial attachment to Josie, the housekeeper.
Compassion for the elderly and dying is an important concept that is too often served up with heavy-handed didacticism in young adult fiction. Klein’s more subtle touch in Going Backwards is welcome. Rarely have both the grotesquely comic and the poignant aspects of Alzheimer’s disease been better detailed in fiction, for whatever age group. The ethical dilemma of euthanasia is also sensitively dramatized. The final conversations between Charles and his mother suggest that they understand Dr. Goldberg’s decision and even admire his courage. Nevertheless, Charles admits that he would find the same action next to impossible for himself. Ultimately, judgment is reserved in this most painful of ethical dilemmas.
Going Backwards is one of Norma Klein’s most powerful novels; it is a personal statement as well. She acknowledged that Dr. Goldberg was a fictional counterpart to her own father, a psychiatrist, while Gustel was a rendering of her grandmother. Dr. Goldberg’s decision had been Dr. Klein’s as well, and his daughter had learned of it much as Charles did in the novel. With her narrative, Norma Klein was obviously working through her feelings about her own family secret.
From the beginning of her career, Klein demonstrated her willingness, even eagerness, to violate taboos. Her bold exploration of the varieties of adolescent sexuality attracted attention, and criticism, but she further startled her readers by introducing even more delicate subject matter. Family Secrets (1985) explored the fragility of contemporary family structures in the era of repeated marriages and no-fault divorce. Older Men (1987) examined obsessive, quasi-incestuous family relationships. At the time of her death in 1989, she was working on several innovative projects. A first-person narrative of gay sexual awakening was in the works. The problems of young people with physical and mental disabilities were to be explored realistically. Klein sometimes gave way to her propensity to sermonize on behalf of liberal causes, even to the artistic detriment of her fiction, and she could be wrathful toward those she considered reactionary. She must certainly be remembered as a pioneer in the realistic and sympathetic treatment of the issues facing urban youth in the last half of the twentieth century: sexual exploration, racism, suicide, mental and physical disability, regional and ethnic conflicts, teenage pregnancy, and child pornography. Compassion was the dominant note in her writing; it is almost impossible to find a truly despicable character in any of her books. Her genuine love for the fictional personalities that she created, much more than the alleged shock value of her books, strongly defines her work.