The Storm at the Door
By Stefan Merrill Block
(Random House, Hardcover, 9781400069453, 368pp.)
Publication Date: June 21, 2011
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The past is not past for Katharine Merrill. Even after two decades of volatile marriage, Katharine still believes she can have the life that she felt promised to her by those first exhilarating days with her husband, Frederick. For two months, just before Frederick left to fight in World War II, Katharine received his total attentiveness, his limitless charms, his astonishing range of intellect and wit. Over the years, however, as Frederick’s behavior and moods have darkened, Katharine has covered for him, trying to rein in his great manic passions and bridge his deep wells of sadness: an unending project of keeping up appearances and hoping for the best. But the project is failing. Increasingly, Frederick’s erratic behavior, amplified by alcohol, distresses Katharine and their four daughters and gives his friends and family cause to worry for his sanity. When, in the summer of 1962, a cocktail party ends with her husband in handcuffs, Katharine makes a fateful decision: She commits Frederick to Mayflower Home, America’s most revered mental asylum.
There, on the grounds of the opulent hospital populated by great poets, intellectuals, and madmen, Frederick tries to transform his incarceration into a creative exercise, to take each meaningless passing moment and find the art within it. But as he lies on his room’s single mattress, Frederick wonders how he ever managed to be all that he once was: a father, a husband, a business executive. Under the faltering guidance of a self-obsessed psychiatrist, Frederick and his fellow patients must try to navigate their way through a gray zone of depression, addiction, and insanity.
Meanwhile, as she struggles to raise four young daughters, Katharine tries to find her way back to Frederick through her own ambiguities, delusions, and the damages done by her rose-colored belief in a life she no longer lives.
Inspired by elements of the lives of the author’s grandparents, this haunting love story shifts through time and reaches across generations. Along the way, Stefan Merrill Block stunningly illuminates an age-old truth: even if one’s daily life appears ordinary, one can still wage a silent, secret, extraordinary war.
Stefan Merrill Block is the author of The Story of Forgetting. He was born in 1982 and grew up in Plano, Texas. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2004. This is his second novel. He lives in Brooklyn.
"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