Review by Hannah Straton
Patty Somlo was good at packing her sparse belongings in a box, moving to a different city, and beginning a whole new life. It wasn’t until she met her husband, Richard, that she began to question the true meaning of “home.”
In her memoir Even When Trapped Behind Clouds (WiDi Publishing, 2016), Somlo describes growing up as a child in the military with an often-absent father and a fearful alcoholic mother — and how that led to a transient and free, yet empty life as an adult. Patty was forced to move many times as a child with her military family, so as an adult, Patty found moving was her preferred coping mechanism.
Even When Trapped Behind Clouds is very much a story of place. Beginning in the tropical beaches of Hawaii as a child and bouncing everywhere from Germany to New Jersey, Somlo focuses on her adult life in San Francisco in the majority of the first section. When San Francisco’s gentrification causes an exorbitant increase in cost, she and her husband move to Oregon, marking a change in the narrative. Somlo begins to think of a “home” not as being tied down to an unwanted place, but as a comforting place to which to come back.
Even When Trapped Behind Clouds gives beautiful descriptions of the artsy and colorful downtown life of the many apartments in San Francisco, and the grief Somlo experiences leaving the city feels real due to the well-written descriptions:
“There is something so sweet about San Francisco it hurts. I felt it when I moved here 34 years ago, and I feel it today. Especially on these sunny, cloudless days, the city beckons, like a young man with dark soft eyes. The air and light samba in a coupling so exquisite neither can believe it, and the colors of the water and brick, and wood and trees seem squeezed from Picasso’s twisted tubes of paint.”
She crafts the same lovely prose each time she describes a place she’s lived and all situations in her life. Oregon’s exquisite green wilderness can exist simultaneously with her reflections on her worsening depression only because of these intense descriptions.
The book goes beyond the images of cities and landscapes. Somlo explores the concept of art and what it means to create: she compares her experience taking classes in San Francisco with her official art school in Washington D.C. She contemplates how society treats the homeless when walking down the streets of San Francisco and later revisits that topic when she teaches a writing class in an Oregon homeless shelter.
The main criticisms for Even When Trapped Behind Clouds include a slow beginning and a stock-looking cover which does not do the book justice. But don’t let that deter you; Patty Somlo’s picturesque writing, combined with her search for meaning in home and relationships and reflections on the world around her, make When Trapped Behind Clouds worth it. It’s an attractive and compelling story with a larger meaning.
Hannah Straton is a student in the MFA program at George Mason University. She is working on a full length creative nonfiction project about mental illness. Her essays have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine and in the Kudzu Quarterly Review. Follow her on Twitter @hannahstraton. She’s really cool, promise.
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