The basics: Chronicling the lives of the Ryrie family, The Grief of Others begins in the present with the death of its newest member, an infant who lived only a couple of days. Then John's daughter, Jessica, conceived in college, shows up pregnant and alone because her mother has kicked her out. The novel jumps back and forth a few times to depict the events and better understand the present and how they all got to this place.
My thoughts: Leah Hager Cohen writes with guts, and she's a strong writer. It's impressive to have a baby die in the opening pages of a novel and it not seem utterly depressing:
"He was a he, too, astonishingly—not that anyone expected him to be otherwise, but the notion of one so elemental, so small, carrying the complex mantle of gender seemed preposterous, the designation “male” the linguistic equivalent of a false mustache fixed above his infant lip."She also introduces some of the key tensions in these opening pages: Ricky, the mother, knew their child would be born with no chance to survive more than hours or perhaps a few days. She chose not to tell her husband John because she feared he would make her do what the doctor suggested: terminate her pregnancy. What I found initially fascinating were Ricky's reasons: they weren't religious or political. She simply followed her gut. This portrait of a clearly troubled marriage was intriguing: preparing for your grief while not giving your husband the same chance. It was a promising beginning.
I knew from the table of contents that The Grief of Others would let us glimpse the Ryries at different times in their lives. While I enjoyed it, and I certainly preferred it to a traditional narrative arc that would have ended with the death of a newborn, the structure ultimately felt gimmicky. Perhaps because Cohen chose to have so many people narrate this novel it left it without a clear focus. The duality of Ricky losing a baby as Jessica appears pregnant also felt heavy handed. Cohen explores some intriguing themes of parenthood and losing children, but I never got so absorbed in this novel I thought it was real. The characters never really came alive for me. As an exercise in theme and writing, it just wasn't enough.
Favorite passage: "Who ever knew what it would take? It was always unexpected, she was learning, the thing that smote your heart, always something untranslatable, irreducible, something that refused to come through in the retelling, so that you felt the absurdity of it increase each time you tried to parse it.The moment that caused your chest to expand, the moment your shortness of breath let you know you had fallen for somebody new."
The verdict: Despite strong writing and interesting characters, The Grief of Others fell somewhat flat for me. Ultimately, the novel's flow felt forced rather than organic there wasn't enough of a payoff for me to love it.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: September 15, 2011
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