Trying to sort through the past plays a big part in Tea by Stacey D’Erasmo, but memory is unreliable. So often it only leads to our own view of ourselves. And what if one were to try to sift through the memories of someone else, even one’s own mother? This is what Isabel Gold does as a girl struggling to survive her mother’s suicide. What she ultimately finds is as unexpected as a sudden death in the family. Until then, Isabel Gold lives suspended, just as her mother did, between the world of need and the world of desire.
As a young girl, Isabel quietly navigates between the unsettling moods of her mother and her father’s pragmatic oblivion. Everything about her is geared toward connecting with something solid and reliable—with her vacant mother, with her emerging sexuality, with her creative vision. And at the same time, her involvements as she matures become based more on things as they seem than on things as they are. Underlying it all is the severed connection between Isabel and her mother, a woman who was simply disappointed with the way her life turned out. As far as Isabel could see, she didn’t even try. Disappointment is her devastating legacy. To Isabel, her mother’s suicide comes across as fundamentally in error. As if the very ground beneath her feet might disappear at any moment.
Throughout Tea, she seeks to regain her balance. In the end, one of life’s ordinary disappointments, like ones we’ve all suffered, leads Isabel to the thing she has been seeking. She is distraught, inside a closet with pills in her hand (it’s no coincidence that her mother died the same way). “She could open the door, or not open the door, and the two sentences were equally possible, they made perfect sense. This was not what she had expected, this niggling randomness, this simple pause, a single held breath in the infinite expanse of darkness.”
This experience helps her to come to terms with an independent self who can choose. It gives her a glimpse of understanding at her mother’s sad choice. History may always repeat itself, but the question is, whose history and when? Tea leads the reader down the long empty corridor of adolesence where each day holds its unique challenge of exploration and survival. Isabel’s fate is not the same as her mother’s, and the difference is simply that some open the door while, sadly, others don’t.