Book: Pieces of My Mother: A Memoir, by Melissa Cistaro
Reviewer: Deana Steele
Age/Genre: Memoir — recommended for adults
Preferred Reading Setting: Get ready to unpack some feelings. I read this primarily in the bath. It isn’t very lengthy, so I would highly recommend this for a rainy Sunday.
Reading accessories/ Accoutrements: A box of tissue, some tea, or maybe a glass (or two…) of wine.
Let me start this review by saying that I had never heard of Melissa Cistaro before picking up Pieces of My Mother: A Memoir. I saw this book on display at my local library, and the thing that made me check it out was the description on the back.
“One summer, Melissa Cistaro’s mother drove off without explanation. Devastated, Melissa and her brothers were left to pick up the pieces, always tormented by the thought: Why did their mother abandon them?”
My first thought was “ouch, that’s brutal.” With that in mind, I plopped the book into my purse (after checking out, of course). I appreciate a tough, gritty, existential-dread sort of read, and decided to give it a shot. Usually if I’m looking to know more about someone, I look for the more flashy names and titles. Memoirs by unfamiliar authors aren’t usually my go-to — if I’m going to read about you, it’s because I have a vested interest in you already — but I have to admit…
Pieces of My Mother has probably been the best memoir I’ve read.
I’m a little bitter about it, because this book has kind of ruined me for memoirs. Pieces of my Mother gripped me harder than any random library book should, and that’s the beauty of giving lesser-known authors a chance. It had me hooked by the second page, and I devoured it over the span of two days.
In Pieces of My Mother: A Memoir, Melissa Cistaro narrates her life and her relationship with her family. She begins detailing her memories from as early as she can remember. It starts with a young Melissa recalling how her mother (Mikel) left at an early age, and returned sporadically throughout her childhood— always with the promise that she was going to come back and be the mother that Melissa wanted her to be.
One section I found incredibly heart-wrenching was when her mom mails Melissa a doll. Young, and in desperate need to find a connection with this parent who had become a stranger, Melissa names the doll after her mother: “Merry.” Her dad corrects her, and has to break it to Melissa that she doesn’t know her mom’s real name. In this passage, Melissa tries to recall details of her mother that she can’t fill in, and notes that “she is disappearing, fading away line by line like the invisible ink Eden got on his birthday.”
Cistaro dives into the impact her absent mom had on her childhood and teen years, and how she inadvertently shaped the way Melissa raised and built relationships with her own children. Melissa gets the chance to visit Mikel on her deathbed, and she shares that experience in her memoir. The heartbreak Melissa trudged through trying to spark a connection that wasn’t there with a dying woman she barely knew made me reflect on our human nature, and our societal obligation to feel deeply for our parents… even if that connection is painful. It made me take a hard look at how I think of absent family members, and it shifted my thinking from “this person is family, you have to make this relationship work” to “if this person doesn’t want to make an effort, neither should you.”
If you struggle with a narcissistic mother, this book may be difficult to get through. There are so many times when Cistaro punched me right in the gut, and she gave me a new perspective on how devastating it can be when you have a parent who doesn’t seem to care. I can’t relate to a lot of her experiences personally, but the incredible vulnerability she expresses in Pieces of My Mother made this memoir stand out as one of my favorites. Cistaro shares the emotional rollercoaster that her mother put her through, and it’s relentless. No one is perfect in this book. This memoir is messy, with no solid resolution, and no heroes. If you’re looking for a read that will tie everything together in a nice bow, this is not the memoir you’re looking for. This is a very personal, intimate narrative that describes how parents, with all of their own idiosyncrasies, can really mess you up.
That being said, this book isn’t a fun read. I can suggest a hundred memoirs that will leave you in stitches, but I wanted to review Pieces of my Mother: A Memoir because I think it is important to suggest books that really make you feel something. My takeaway from this book was a hefty one: parents often don’t deserve the pedestals we construct for them in our hearts. Sometimes, for our own sake, we have to forgive them for that. Melissa also makes it clear that, even though our parents shape our lives in massive ways, we don’t have to end up like them and repeat the cycle.
Melissa Cistaro is one of many who have produced gems outside of the bestsellers list. After diving into this book and giving this memoir a chance, I made it my goal to pick up books by authors who haven’t released major titles. If that is your goal as well, I hope you add Pieces of my Mother: A Memoir to your list!