The Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic is the third book in a quartet of memoirs documenting Nora Gallagher's quest to live her faith in the modern world. In Things Seen and Unseen, Gallagher chronicled her experiences as a "tourist" amid Christianity. In Practicing Resurrection, she reflected upon her brother's death and considered entering the Episcopalian religious life. Now, Gallagher seems baptized by fire when a routine eye exam--one she almost cancels--propels her into a web of uncertainty about her failing eyesight.
The story is structured in three parts: "Drowning" reveals a serious inflammation of Gallagher's optic nerve. In "Limbo," she is suddenly at the mercy (or lack thereof) of doctors and a medical establishment unable to offer a concrete diagnosis. After a year of searching for answers, Gallagher and her husband finally make a pilgrimage from their home in Santa Barbara, Calif., to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where specialists offer insight and treatment options. In "Recalled to Life," Gallagher begins to process the ambiguity of her condition, but not before additional complications impede her progress.
Mystery, confusion and doubt infuse the unmitigated honesty of this memoir that maps the broad implications of disability. As she loses aspects of her sight, her ability to read and her faith, 60-year-old Gallagher examines her life and mines her liberal Christian beliefs. Church fails to provide comfort and a sense of connection, but words do, and Gallagher artfully employs them to write a beautifully rendered portrait of the frailty of the human condition.
Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
"Once a candidate for the Episcopal priesthood, [Gallagher] infuses her journey with a spiritual disorientation, beginning with the sudden discovery at age 60 of a dangerously inflamed optic nerve (a condition called optic neuritis) that could have resulted in blindness. The illness made her feel as if she “dropped out of the world [she] lived in” and was deposited in a kind of Oz, separated from healthy people by a glass wall, where she had instantly become a part of the suffering unfortunates who she had once prayed for and regarded with patronizing sympathy. Forced to scale back her busy life, Gallagher was also terrified that the strain of taking care of her would alienate her husband of 27 years. Doped up on prednisone (steroids) and sent from specialist to specialist, she finally got a referral to the famed Rochester, Minn., Mayo Clinic, where another round of tests and exams only added layers to a mystifying journey. Gallagher does not dole out easy answers in this somber, reflective work. But she finds the humble, bracing imperative to live in the present. 'Task: to be where I am.'"
Life-changing moments take place on seemingly ordinary days when we least expect it. That is one of the many lessons writer Gallagher (Practicing Resurrection, 2003) shares in this compelling memoir of the time she spent in what she calls the Land of Oz. Not the fantastical place that sprung from the imagination of L. Frank Baum but rather the place where the sick reside. When her doctor finds something amiss during a routine eye examination, she begins a long journey on a difficult yellow-brick road. Gallagher’s memoir is about many things: illness, mortality, faith and doubt, work, busyness, navigating through the crazy quilt that is the American health-care system, and, ultimately, about regaining one’s health and one’s place in the universe. Most of all, it is the memoir of a writer’s life (“Books were to my family’s house like beds and stoves, the most basic items, necessary for survival”) and the fear of losing one of the most precious tools of not only of the literary realm but of life itself: the gift of sight.
June Sawyers, Booklist