When her mother develops colon cancer, writer Jessie Sholl leaves New York and comes back to her native Minneapolis. The dread she feels is only partly due to her mother's illness. Mostly, she dreads getting enmeshed, once again, in the messiness and squalor of her mother's life. Helen is a hoarder, and her Minneapolis house is crammed with magazines, clothing, broken appliances, bags and bags of yarn, moldy piles of old rugs, blankets and sweaters, thousands of books, sack after sack after sack of identical pairs of shoes.
Over the years, Sholl's visits have devolved into nagging and frantic cleaning, and as her memoir unfolds it becomes apparent that emptying Helen's house has become her obsession, just as it is Helen's obsession to fill it up. It takes years for Sholl to realize that she cannot change her mother, and that no amount of decluttering will ever make a permanent difference. Meanwhile, she is grateful for small favors, thankful that Helen does not belong to one of the many subsets of hoarders -- people who hoard animals, or garbage, or food.
Sholl's writing is not particularly graceful, but it is earnest, gritty and honest. She portrays her mother as a full and fascinating person -- funny, feisty, charming as heck, but also deeply wounded and indisputably mentally ill. With this memoir she has done a remarkable thing, making a peculiar and not-well-understood obsession become the stuff not of bizarro TV shows but of real life.