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Reviewed by Lesley Jones for Readers' Favorite
In Watkins Glen by Eleanor Lerman, Susan had moved to the tranquil town of Watkins Glen fifteen years ago from New York. Now in her sixties, Susan had become estranged from her older brother Mark until she receives a call from his son, concerned for his mental well-being. The news that her rational, intelligent brother would act so strangely is unbelievable to her. Susan had always been the wayward sibling but when she calls Mark, his behavior is totally out of character and quite bizarre. He seems to have acquired an unhealthy obsession for painting and his constant references to his childhood are unnerving. When Susan arrives at Mark's apartment in Brooklyn, she demands answers and he finally confesses that he has the onset of Alzheimer's. Susan discovers her brother has a form of dementia known as Acquired Artist Syndrome and the prognosis is not good. Although Mark is fiercely independent, he finally agrees to stay with Susan. She must now come to terms with the declining health of her brother while trying to build bridges that have slowly disintegrated over the years. As Mark's love of painting becomes his true passion, he begins to paint a mysterious Loch Ness-type creature, 'Sennie,' he believes resides in Seneca Lake. Mark's paintings of Sennie intensify until storms hit the area. Mark believes the machines used to clear the lake have caused the creature to disappear. As Mark desperately searches for this elusive creature, Susan must deal with her brother's increasing lack of awareness about reality, while at the same time realizing he has taught her the true meaning of happiness and fulfillment.
Watkins Glen by Eleanor Lerman is such a beautifully endearing story of family relationships and important lessons about living an authentic life. I absolutely adored Susan; she was strong, adventurous, and formidable with a genuinely good heart and soul. Her reactions when she was confronted with Mark's illness were extremely realistic. I felt her frustrations, denial, and shock were incredibly powerful and anyone who has suffered the pain of a friend or family member's illness would relate to her behavior. Mark was intelligent, rational, and calm but his fear when his illness deteriorated was heartbreaking. Susan and Mark were flawed human beings and that's what made them so likable. I loved the backstory of their father who emigrated from Russia; this gave a very interesting aspect to the story.
Eleanor has created each character, even the minor ones, with such care and consideration and this was admirable and made the novel even more compelling. There are some quite emotional scenes throughout as the relationship between Mark and Susan grows and as they both make their peace with painful childhood memories. The scene where Susan admits the weight on her shoulders, knowing that her brother's fate was in her hands, summed up the enormity of her situation perfectly. I also thought the gradual realization by Susan about what her priorities should be in life and what is important was a golden and heartwarming moment in the story.