Block (The Story of Forgetting) fictionalizes the story of his grandparents in this incredibly moving story of life, love, and mental illness. Frederick is an eccentric, depressed alcoholic who chooses a stint at the Mayflower Home for the Mentally Ill (a fictionalized McLean Psychiatric Hospital) over being jailed for flashing a car. What Frederick cannot expect is that he will remain a prisoner there, at the mercy of his fed-up wife, Katharine, and a series of sadistic doctors who are charged with "curing" Frederick and his compatriots at the institution. After he witnesses a series of increasingly gory suicides, Frederick's determination to hold on to normalcy wanes—particularly after a round of electroshock therapy administered by a physician who only wants Frederick to forget a transgression he witnessed between the doctor and a nurse. Katharine, meanwhile, is forced to face what she has done both to her husband and to her four daughters—both in the moment and decades later when Block brings his fictional counterpart into the story. He masterfully pulls the reader through this heartbreaking story, making readers care deeply about what happens to his characters, as flawed as they are at times. It's this generation's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, all the more horrifying because of its real-world inspiration. (June)
"The Storm at the Door is one of the bravest and most beautiful books I have ever read. It's a wholly original hybrid --by turns a fictional account of the love story of Frederick and Katharine Merrill, a terrifying tour of the "horrorland" of the Mayflower Home for the Mentally Ill, a lucid translation of madness, and a grandson's quest to understand "the blank page" of his family's past. Stefan Merrill Block's language soars--he's got a wingspan that covers three generations. Refusing to be "paralyzed by fact," Block moves nimbly between fact and fiction, history and the imagination, to get at truths that are almost unbearable: that love can fail, that a mind can immolate, and that language can sometimes leave us lonelier than our original silence. This is a powerful, enthralling and unforgettable book."
-- Karen Russell, New York Times bestselling author of Swamplandia!
"The Storm at the Door is a fascinating exploration of Stefan Merrill Block's family history, both of what actually and what might've happened following his grandmother's fateful decision to commit his manic depressive grandfather to a mental institution. Told with intelligence, a poetic ear for language, and empathy, The Storm at the Door is a captivating story about separation and enduring love."
--Lisa Genova, New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice
“The Storm at the Door is a brilliant and passionate examination of the outer limits of language, sanity, and the human heart. At its center is the heartbreaking love story of a writer's lost grandparents, an enduring marriage interrupted by madness, sustained by language and memories. Stefan Merrill Block is an amazing writer, at once cerebral and tender, lyrical and profound. The Storm at the Door is an enthrallingly original book.”
--Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award
“Lucid, intelligent, passionate, this beautifully orchestrated novel reaches half a century back in time and reverts to the present in order to show three generations struggling to cope with the consequences of a grandfather’s madness that may or may not have been real. The visual images of this book are burned into my memory. The style is masterful. But most important the compassion that reconstructs the painful past and analyzes the uncertain present is unflagging and deeply admirable. Stefan Merrill Block is a brilliant young author who has turned out a nearly perfect work of art.”
-- Edmund White, author of City Boy and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
“One way to read The Storm at the Door is as an extended meditation on Robert Lowell’s poem, “Waking in Blue,” written when the poet was a psychiatric patient at McLean Hospital. Another way is as a novel about corrosive family secrets. Yet another is as a slant re-telling of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In actual fact, it’s a brilliant and fascinating fusion of all three.”
-- Mary Jo Bang, author of Elegy, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
"Stefan Block's heart-wrenching tale of love and madness cuts through the insulating layers of American life until it's rubbing up against the bare essence of humanity. The writing is that good, the characters that strong. Never has a true story been imagined so beautifully."
-- David Goodwillie, author of American Subversive
"In this gorgeous and heartbreaking novel, Stefan Merrill Block has achieved something rare and magnificent: A sympathetic and utterly realistic portrait of depression, that will ring true with anyone who has suffered from its crushing weight. That he has also managed to perfectly capture the joys and tedium of marriage and family life is only a testament to this young writer’s extraordinary and evolving talent."
-- Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age
Katharine and Frederick Merrill married shortly before Frederick's brief service in World War II, which ended when he was discharged for erratic behavior. After his return home, his efforts as a father and a husband failed miserably, and Katharine, despairing and feeling betrayed, was forced to commit him to Mayflower, an upscale mental hospital, to keep him out of jail. Moving back and forth in time, Block (The Story of Forgetting) takes as his framework his grandparents' volatile marriage, splitting his narrative between Katharine's life as a struggling single mother in the 1960s and Frederick's life in a hospital of brilliant, creative, mentally ill men at the mercy of a dangerous director whose failed attempt to silence Frederick leads to horrific tragedy. VERDICT Taking a true story and building an imagined world of love, mental illness, and the quiet evil of a weak man with power, Block demands a reader's full attention so as not to miss a single, searing moment.—Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Through fiction and the imprecision of memory, a writer examines the challenging relationship between his grandparents.
After garnering raves and sales for his first novel, Block (The Story of Forgetting, 2008) once again delves into that murky area between lost love, memory and deeply held melancholy. This round, the author builds his story largely on the true-life history of his grandparents, who found themselves at an impasse when his grandmother had his grandfather committed to a mental institution. The novel opens on Echo Cottage, as the writer contemplates his steely-eyed grandmother, Katharine Mead Merrill, in 1989. At 69, Alzheimer's has started to chip away at long-held memories. Then the story lurches forward to July of 1962, finding the grandfather Frederick Francis Merrill in a drug-induced stupor at the Mayflower Home for the Mentally Ill, where he has been incarcerated for a long history of drinking, bad behavior and, finally, flashing two old ladies on a New Hampshire back road. Block examines, through cautious language and nearly imperceptible sympathy, the events that have brought the couple from here to there. And it is true that Katherine is in an awful state. "Katherine is a mother of four, with a husband in a mental hospital," Block writes. "The winter is coming, and the money is running out. Her marriage has failed, everyone knows it, and she has no real friends. Her relatives have turned against her husband first, and now they are turning on her too. She can no long be anything other than what everyone plainly sees her to be."But there is sympathy to be unearthed for Frederick, too, as Block expertly captures the frustration and personal devastation wreaked by his grandfather's depression, equally hard on him as it is on his family. As he suffers in the institution he dubs "Horrorland," Katherine begins to reconsider her responsibility for her husband's condition.
A sad but elegantly told story punctuated with photos, letters and a verisimilitude that elevate its fictional ambitions.