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Warning: Death, Love & Loss Ahead.

Let me hit this one straight on.
Both the books reviewed here are about death and grief.

And that’s not for everyone, I reckon.

It isn’t light-hearted and isn’t funny and likely might not fit with that glorious spring day you are experiencing—wherever you may be.

So I wanted to warn you.

Over the last two weeks, I have read two books that look at death, loss, and grief. That they were read together is a complete accident. That I loved both of them and they spoke to me was decidedly not.

The brutal truth in life is that people we love die.
And the people who are our friends love people who die.

And for some people, and even at certain moments, this is just too painful to examine in real life. But through a book, maybe we can see it and experience it more clearly.

For those of you that might have had recent experiences which deal with the complex emotions around losing someone you love (and please, I assure you, also for those who have not), let me recommend two absolutely excellent books. Their exploration of death–and what follows before and after–is masterfully delivered.

Joan Didion, one of the most prolific writers of our time, wrote a book called “The Year of Magical Thinking” in 2005. She won the National Book Award for her fantastic memoir that describes in harrowing detail losing her husband to cardiac arrest and watching her daughter battle a surprising illness that ultimately takes her life. These tragic events happen simultaneously.

Didion portrays in great detail the hospital, funeral and other iconic moments in death, but reports it in a way as if detached from the situation. But his single scarf on the back of the dining room chair, the notes on a notepad in his office—the symbols of their everyday life as a loving couples and as friends–depicts so clearly the loss and emptiness she feels at John’s passing. The magical thinking refers to the fact that if she wishes hard enough, he may return. She does not give away his shoes. He may need them.

In an era of reality TV and voyeurism, Didion opens up her personal grief in an analogous way. The amazing detail she shares allows you to feel like you are experiencing it with her. But also safely, intellectually, from a distance.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.  We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.  We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks.  We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock.  We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.  We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss.  We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.  IN the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.”  A certain forward movement will prevail.  The worst days will be the earliest days.  We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place.  When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” to rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death.  We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day?  We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue.  We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion.  Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we  imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”

While it is a sad and tragic situation, I want to communicate that it is not depressing. It is simply profound. It is credible, accessible and appreciated. It is a love story of sorts. It feels in some way like a gift. Preparing us for a road ahead which we don’t want to contemplate.

When a male friend insisted I read the “The Spare Room” by Helen Garner, I digested the slim 175-page novel in one glorious, childless plane ride. It consumed me, reading the story of a woman in her mid-60s (“Helen”) who tends to Nicola, an adult friend enduring alternative treatments to her late onset cancer. Unlike Didion’s book, in which death happens instantaneously and we follow her through an excavation that follows, Garner’s book takes us on an imminent glide path to death—the preparation for, the caring of, the letting go. It is a different view and a different kind of pain.

Slyly sniffling on the plane, I read about this dedicated friend who struggled with being selfless and selfish, who wanted to allow her crazy friend hope yet bludgeon her with a dose of reality. Only when I finished did I see the jacket cover describe Garner as ‘Australia’s Joan Didion’.

They share a knack for clean language, brutal honesty and strength with tenderness.

“The Spare Room” is positioned as a novel but the story seems so raw and so real, one can’t help but believe that it is simply a memoir where the facts have been changed. (Call me a rocket scientist, the main character is named Helen). This captivating story simply could not have been created in the imagination; the honesty about the many complex emotions you may feel in the process could not have been so realistically recounted without personal experience.

So, I admit it.
To me too, it seems such a strange post for a warm spring day.

The sun shines. It feels hopeful and warm. The kids play little league and the dog chews on a pinecone and the New York Times gets read and a spouse travels home safely.
It is calm and blissful.

Didion opens her book with these simple words:

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instance.
The ordinary instance.”

On the flip side of death and grief, there is gratitude.
Savor your warm, delicious spring day.

We have built “Top 5” list before. Are there any other powerful fiction and memoir you have read about death and loss? Share them here….


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15 Comments Post a comment
  1. nate #

    sitting in a cafe in los gatos, not sure why, allowed myself a break in my workload to click on your post and read it. thanks, well written. i couldn’t get thru the excerpted portion of didion i think in the nyt, without sobbing, but i hear your point…may go back and give it a try.

    bone people is a favorite, if a bit depressing…may not be exactly about love/loss but close.

    thanks for your insights. how you managed to read 2 books in as many weeks is a mystery to me.

    May 2, 2010
  2. I love “Hannah’s Gift” by Maria Housden. Its the story of a little girl who dies of cancer and the lessons she taught while she alive.

    Maria writess so beautifully that I couldn’t put it down. From a mom who has lost a child, a sister and my mom over recent years, I found Joan’s book hard going although very accurate in how grief feels. Thanks for your review, can’t wait to check out ‘the spare room’
    Diana Doyle

    May 2, 2010
  3. sherry #

    “A Three Dog Life” is very good. So is “The Mercy Papers.”

    May 2, 2010
  4. Cynthia #

    I liked both of them too. I saw “The Year of Magical Thinking” on Broadway with Vanessa Redgrave. Then tragically her daughter died also.
    I just finished “The Mercy Papers” by Robin Romm and it was so painful I couldn’t wait to finish it.

    May 2, 2010
  5. Jazzie #

    I listened to “The Year of Magical Thinking” on CD and absolutely loved it. I still have it on my iPod, and I usually delete them after I’ve finished “reading”. I will revisit it someday.

    I also was very moved by Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett. A true story of her friendship with Lucy Grealy who died of cancer at age 39. No other book has made me count my blessings (and I am not religious!) as much as this one.

    Books like these help us to savor the good times because nothing will last forever.

    Thank you for the reviews, I look forward to reading The Spare Room.

    Jazzie

    May 2, 2010
    • Jazzie #

      Oops…It’s been awhile since I read Truth & Beauty. Lucy’s death was not from the cancer (though she did have it). Didn’t want to leave that error unchecked.

      May 2, 2010
    • It’s been some years since I read Truth & Beauty. Some say it is Patchett’s best. Thanks for reminding me Jazzie.

      May 3, 2010
  6. Mary #

    I would want to add “A Happy Marriage” by Rafael Yglesias to the list, a novel but also autobiography of the author’s 30-year marriage and the death of his wife.

    May 15, 2010
  7. Viv #

    I actually didn’t enjoy Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” as a book-reading experience. My interpretation was that she was trying to convey the experience of her grief by bringing us through her thought process rather than describing it to us. This was interesting and unexpected as a concept, but I thought it made for a drudgery of reading with all the complicated technical paragraphs filled with endless references… for me it was something that I could appreciate as a valid approach, but it didn’t move me at all. That said, the passage that you quoted above is very compelling. I guess, for me, those nuggets got lost. Perhaps, for me, it would have been better as a short story.

    May 17, 2010
    • I appreciate you adding this comment–I can see this point of view. She was almost ‘sterile’ at parts. Scientific. But in some ways this distance kept it from being too sappy or over sentimentalized for me. It was hard enough as it was!

      May 17, 2010
  8. Mary #

    Thank you for recommending “The Spare Room,” I just finished it. Having helped my best friend through the final stages of lung cancer four years ago, I realize how much more horrible the experience could have been.

    May 23, 2010
  9. Fiona #

    Hello. Newbie to the blog. I loved ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’. Even the title nails the harrowing first year of grief. The sterility didn’t bother me at all. In fact she keeps coming back to it herself doesn’t she, including in the quotation above, how the hospital social worker thoughtlessly complimented her as ‘a cool customer’. ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ by Jonathan Safran Foer is another fine book about bereavement.

    July 18, 2010
    • I loved Extremely Loud. So much better than his first book I thought. Thanks for joining us and keep the suggestions coming!

      July 21, 2010
  10. Hi Katy,

    Two possible suggestions for future books:

    The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – oddball and slightly melancholy but intriguing twists and the author uses a totally different tactic to look at a family and their relationships. the protagonist actually can know everything about the person who made her food (emotions, bio, etc) by tasting. I really enjoyed it and stlll thinking about it after finishing.

    The Diving Bell and Butterfly – some of the most gorgeous writing and uplifting story I have read in ages. seriously inspiring.

    hope life is good!

    Jane

    July 19, 2010
    • JC, I have read so many reviews of “Particular Sadness” and couldn’t decide if it sounded good or awful. Love the suggestion. As well as The Diving Bell and Butterfly–wasn’t that made into a Wes Anderson movie??

      July 21, 2010

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