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.