Monday, November 7, 2011

The Grief of Others

Be not afraid of this title. This exquisite book, though about grief, will not cause you to grieve but to rejoice at the glory of the English language! Leah Hager Cohen is a name you may not find on the New York Times best seller list, a fact that will tell future generations a thing or two about our discernment as it applies to literary appreciation.
I don't recall how I first heard about her but I've been following her blog for several years now and have been brought practically to my knees in envy and appreciation of her skills.

How many years has it been since you fell in love with an entire family? A fictional family, that is? Each member of the Ryrie family is so special, so distinct, so overwhelmingly lovable, even when he or she is acting distinctly unlovable. Ricky, John, Paul and Biscuit, then later Jess, could be any average American family in the burbs, a two income household in which the fact that Ricky earns considerably more as a financial analyst than does John who designs stage sets, causes some friction and resentment now and then.

What sets them apart is that it's been a year since the death of their newborn son and they have yet to talk about it. The corrugated box of ashes, tied up with string, has been relegated to a high shelf in the back of a closet. The fact of its being hidden there, though, does nothing to dispel the sense of lethargy, loss, anxiety, and despair that hovers over the Ryrie household.

Paul, as awkward a pre-teen as you've ever met, is being bullied at school. His once lanky frame has given way to pudginess and a raft of pimples as he tries to eat away his insecurities. Biscuit, at ten, is a little miss firecracker, too bright and sassy for her own good. Yet, in the year since the baby's death she has skipped school five times and, anathema to some of us, has stolen a book from the library. John and Ricky notice nothing. At best, they are only vaguely aware.

The tension in the air is so tangible that as I read I worried for the mental health of "my" family. Open up! Open up! I wanted to yell at them, to shake them, force them to look at these beautiful damaged kids crying out for a way to work through their own pain. And suddenly there were catalysts, new characters who would change the makeup of things, skew the emotions, throw everyone off balance, and I loved them too.

If you've been reading along here for a few years you know that I have a love/hate relationship with the word "luminous." I worry about its overuse, especially in book reviews. Nevertheless, I've racked my brain and I can find no other word that better describes the memorable feeling of reading a truly luminous novel such as this one. Just read this description of the newborn, Simon, from the first page of the book:

          "His lips: how barely pink they were, the pink of the rim of the sky at winter dusk. And in the curl - in the way the upper lip rose to peaks and dipped down again, twice, like a bobbing valentine, and in the way the lower bowed out, luxuriant, lush, as if sated already from a lifetime of pleasures...."

I've never even held a newborn but I could feel and smell him with every fiber of my being as I read this paragraph. Ms. Cohen's entire novel is overflowing with glorious gemlike sentences. Please, do yourself a favor and download, purchase or borrow this book as soon as you can. Then let me know what you think.


Leah Hager Cohen said...

Dear Sally,
Oh my - what a generous and heart-full posting, which I stumbled upon during my efforts to find a way to respond to your comment on my blog. Thank you for sharing such warm words. And the fact that you are a librarian, to boot, makes ME want to click my heels in glee.
With every good wish,

Sallyb said...

I'm honored to have your comments and will unabashedly use my position at the reference desk to place your book in every hand that I can! My wish for you is a pair of ruby slippers to wear while clicking your heels.