Obese and drug-addled in a house overwhelmed with chaos, eighty-two-year-old widow Cora Sledge finds herself confronted by her three adult children. The general hysteria rises as Glenda, Dean and Kenneth search the filthy premises, unearthing a daunting stash of pills. Outmaneuvered, Cora is soon moved to The Palisades, an assisted-living facility where she faces the four walls of an impersonal room with a view of daily truck deliveries and a string of carts pushed back and forth from laundry to facility.
For a while, Cora’s natural rebellion leads her to seek comfort in the remaining pills she has hidden from her children, an unhappy lump of sad memories under the blankets, a victim of circumstances. But Cora’s desire to live - and express herself to the world - far outweighs her need for seclusion. Cora is a fighter, a woman who has carried her life on her back in silence. Now she is ready to tell her story.
The journal a granddaughter gave her in hand, Cora begins her history, a combination of the past and the ugly realities of the present in The Palisades, where “walkers and wheelchairs make a slow-motion stampede for the dining room.” Cora tells of her outrage when her children dump out the spoiled food from her refrigerator, scolding her about the unsanitary living conditions; her place at a table for four in the facility’s dining room, hectored daily by “Poison Ivy” while the two other assigned tablemates cast judgmental eyes.
Thanks to Larson’s brilliant conception of this octogenarian curmudgeon, we learn the interior life of an unhappy woman trapped in her fleshy body, the painful secret she has kept for many years, her longing for connection, and the outrages that occur in a pace where old people are warehoused, from Cora’s private room to the upstairs floor, where “State” patients are herded together in a dormitory until they expire.
While she isn’t mistreated, a series of small robberies has bedeviled the facility, Poison Ivy staring at Cora as though she is the culprit. Shockingly, as Cora sheds the years of buried emotions in the three journals she fills during the novel, the weight begins to fall from her body. When the most precious of commodities in such a place - a man - takes an interest in Cora, her future suddenly looks brighter.
Of course, Cora is a dreamer destined to suffer the inevitable blows of reality, true love the stuff of novels. Above all, this spunky, big-hearted woman is a survivor, her voice strong and plaintive as she demands to choose whatever destiny awaits. Joyful, heartbreaking and full of grace, Cora Sledge is a character not soon to be forgotten.