When Love Was Clean Underwear
by Susan Barr-Toman


New Rivers Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-898-23243-1.
Reviewed by Doris Anne Roop-Benner
Posted on 04/30/2010

Fiction: Mainstream

Lucy took the oxygen tubes out of her mother's nose and turned off the tank so they could share a last cigarette together. It was October 30, Mischief Night, the day her mother Marge had chosen to die in the hope of being buried on All Souls' Day. Lucy didn't really want to kill her mother, but she sat next to her and when Marge nodded, she read from the first index card—"Place pillow over my face and apply firm but gentle pressure for a minimum of five minutes."

And so begins the story of how Lucy went from a quiet, unassuming caregiver who was coerced into killing her mother to a strong, independent woman. Along the way, we meet the family and friends who wanted her to stay in the past.

Lucy was a single woman, almost thirty, living with her mother, working part-time at a funeral home. Her mother was disowned by her family when she married Joseph and Lucy's sister moved away as soon as she was old enough. So, when her mother Marge got sick and decided to take her life, it fell to Lucy to take care of it. The only glitch was that Lucy found out after Marge died that in her will she left their house to the church. Lucy was literally out on the street with only the contents of the house and lots of secrets that her mother neglected to tell her about. But maybe this was the best thing that could have happened—she had to grow up.

Barr-Toman takes us through the ups and downs of the love/hate relationships we all have with our families. In addition, she includes the overbearing friends and neighbors who want to help and control her.

The book made me think about how I would handle the combination of difficult circumstances that Lucy inherited.


Susan Barr-Toman was born and raised in Philadelphia, where she still lives with her husband and two children, and where she teaches writing at Temple University. She holds an MFA in writing and literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Visit her website.

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