Customer Reviews: Swallow the Ocean: A Memoir
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on January 23, 2008
This is a moving and beautifully written love story by a daughter about her mother and her entire family. It is a must-read for anyone who has ever lived in proximity with someone who is 'walking wounded' as a consequence of mental illness, but is not ill enough to be hospitalized. In a most beautiful and moving way, Ms Flynn tells her story of growing up in San Francisco as her Mom descends into mental illness.
I was truly blessed with Swallow the Ocean only a few weeks after caring for and then burying a mentally ill relative who had simply worn out those who lived in closest contact with him. He couldn't help being ill; the relatives who weren't around for him could be forgiven for giving up on him. He was not easy to love.
Ms Flynn builds a bridge for us to help better understand mental illness and how families struggle to do their best under very trying circumstances.
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on January 19, 2008
Once you begin reading "Swallow the Ocean," you won't be able to put it down. I read it until 3 am, and I would have kept on reading it if I hadn't gotten to the end. This is just one of those books. I don't want to give too much away, but I will say that the story will break your heart and then help you put it back together again.

This is a marvelous, beautiful book. The writing is stunning!
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on February 12, 2008
I am not a big memoir reader- even acclaimed ones are usually too self-indulgent for my tastes. But a friend pressed Swallow the Ocean on me, and once I got started I couldn't put it down. It lights up many parts of your brain as you are reading it, and for some time afterwards too.
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on August 7, 2008
First of all, this is a memoir but it's written like a novel. Honestly, Flynn's writing is just so beautiful - she captures each moment with just the right words and stunning phrases, I really look forward to whatever she writes next, whether it be fiction or not. So for those of you not such big fans of memoirs, this may be a good one to pick up simply for the novel-esque quality about it.

Second of all, I was especially intrigued by this book because I have an undergraduate degree in psychology and mental illness is something that I've studied and that I'm very interested in. I also spent two years in college volunteering at a crisis/suicide hotline, where in addition to receiving calls from suicide victims, we also spoke with several "regulars" who were sufferers of different types of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia. The behaviors Flynn described her mother doing were very similar to what I saw in the people that I had worked with who suffered from schizophrenia. It was heartbreaking (yet also interesting) to read about this disease from a child's perspective, and to see the utter destruction it caused in these three girls' lives. It made me sad to read about the first time Flynn's father attempted to gain custody, when her mother put on such a good show that the courts threw his case right out - keep in mind, this was in a time when the mother ALWAYS got custody, so it was of course a long shot to begin with. But all the same, how sad to be a child in this terrifying situation, when even your own father cannot rescue you?

The ending of this book is ultimately triumphant, although sad at the same time. I feel for Flynn, being a thirtysomething woman and not having a mother to talk to - personally, my mother is one of the most important people in my life. But it seems as though she has truly come to terms with her mother's condition - she spoke of the closeness she now has with her sisters, father, and stepmother, and it didn't seem like Flynn really felt she was missing out on much in her life. This book really shows how growing up in an adverse situation can truly create your personality - Flynn and her sisters' lives were shaped by their mother's schizophrenia, and this book is a wonderful testament to what we can make of our circumstances, even the most awful ones.
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on February 27, 2008
My heart still breaks for the little girls at the center of this book, and their carefully constructed world of imagination that fights against the illness in their house. The writing has an ethereal quality to it that keeps you turning the pages long after bedtime, and sticks with you long after the last riveting page.
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VINE VOICEon May 16, 2010
This is exactly the kind of memoir I most like to read. The author, Laura Flynn, tells in clear, beautiful language a muddled, sad story---her life with her mother, who was paranoid schizophrenic but refused any treatment. She and her sisters endure years of life with a mother who was increasingly out of touch with reality, who took out much of her anger on Laura's older sister Sara, and who in spite of all this could at times be an amazing, creative mother. This is a also an account of how hard it was in the 1970s for a father to get custody of children, even in a case like this where the mother was clearly unfit to parent. Thankfully, he finally did, and the dramatic way Laura's mother falls apart the day that happens casts a sad light over the memory of the years before and over all the future years. The memoir is also, in a way, one that may give hope to a lot of people---Laura and her sisters turn out well, saved by the happy early years and the love of their father and step-mother, and extended family. I really liked the writing here. The book was well-written without being showy---I never got the feeling this was a showplace for hours spent in writer's workshops, but rather, a story that needed to be told and was told, very well.
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on February 4, 2008
Swallow the Ocean is one of the most tremendous memoirs I have ever read. I could feel the build of events, though they were never once written about in an overly dramatic fashion. The book seems to be crafted with the opposite in mind- a quiet, brooding, mounting pressure, all given to the reader as if on the sly, as if sharing a whispered secret. So that by the time I read one of the final scenes, I was in part stunned that there was this kind of action after so much surviving of the incremental steps. Simply, it does everything a powerful memoir should do, but is even more beautiful because it's done thoughtfully, quietly, elegantly.
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on February 12, 2008
The first two days the book was in my house, I lost it to my wife, who read it straight threw. Then I couldn't put it down. For such a subject that can be so heavy, the writing is very easy to sink into and enjoy. I also grew up with a parent who was mentally ill for many years. This book found an approach to talking about growing up with a mentally ill parent that was just the right balance of directly looking at what is painful and lightness. The author can sometimes takes a refreshing birds-eye view, while also noticing intimate, specific details of family life. I found reading it to be very life-affirming.
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Imagine you're just a little girl. Now imagine you're a little girl with a mother with schizophrenia. Now imagine you're a little girl with a mother with schizophrenia and a father that has to get out of the situation. You've just summed up the early life of Laura Flynn.

**** Warning: There's spoilers in here. I cannot review it without them, so... be warned ****

This is a hard book to read at times. Laura grew up in the 70s where the kids' custody were pretty much always placed with the mother. I must give her father major props for doing the best he could and giving the kids the most normal life he could when he had them and continuing to fight the good fight. He could have easily turned his back on the entire situation. He also seemed to be very open and kept talking to his kids.

It's super well written. Parts of it have a feeling of being in a fog, of looking at a scene play out from behind smoky glass. You see it, but you aren't completely sure if you can believe what you are seeing. I also really liked that the author made sure to say what things everyone remembered, but at the same time say "I remember this, but my sisters do not.." It felt honest. It felt real.

I found parts of this tough to read, I wanted to barge into that house and make those girls some spaghetti with garlic bread and play Battleship. I wanted to call someone and MAKE them come help with the situation. I wanted to talk to them as adults and know more about how they are coping with some of the crazy things that happened and how they are able to still maintain relationships with their mother. I wanted so much. I think this is the mark of a good memoir though. I felt invested in these kids and their lives.

One of the quotes I wrote down from this book was "There's almost no limit to what you can shelter within you." and I think that sums it up pretty well and was quite insightful and painfully true. What I was left wondering is if the author continues to hold all of that in or if she's managed to let some of it go. She seems to gloss over her own life and feelings today. I get that it was more of a memoir of her life with her mother, but I really wanted to know about where she is in her own life today.

Let me end by saying that I'm not sure I agree with one of the key statements of this book. Towards the end, she tells us of her mother's life today and says "Isolation was the route she'd chosen and one we had accepted, to some extent, all these years. We had to ask ourselves, if she'd indeed been suffering from a disease of an organic nature all along and we'd never forcibly intervened before, how could we justify hospitalizing her now when she was too weak to defend herself?" I'm not sure I agree. Knowing how her mother chose to live and how they've allowed her to live doesn't make it right. I really wanted this book to end with her mother getting help. I realize that it's easy for me to say and I've never been in the situation myself, so I'm trying hard not to judge, but part of me really wanted something different for Sally.

I recommend this for anyone that enjoys memoirs, but also for those that may be dealing with mental illness in their own family or just has an interest in.
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on July 14, 2011
Loved it. Swallowed me up. Yes, there are parts that may ramble, but the prose (for me) creates an immediate sense of mood, character and setting. How do two girls survive an unpredictable childhood with a wildly schizophrenic, talented, and ferocious mother? "Resilient" and "resourceful" don't quite explain the tactics used by the author and her sister in this memoir. Written from the child's point of view, the reader is in the story right along with author Laura M. Flynn, with no escape. There are dangerous moments such as fires being set in living rooms, great descriptions of San Francisco neighborhoods, and typical, yet alarming childhood anguish. I won't be a spoiler, but I was relieved to read what happens for the girls in this true story. The book is a tender reminder to be kind to families with members who suffer from a mental illness. Great job!
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