Wednesday, March 28, 2012

book review: The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen

The backstory: The Grief of Others is longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize.

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
Source: purchased

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20 comments:

  1. I read this one while it was ok, I didn't feel like it was award worthy...JMO.

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    1. I would concur, Diane. She has a lot of the pieces, and I'll be curious to see what she does next.

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  2. I find your take on this one interesting, and have to admit that when I read the summary, I thought it sounded a little gimmicky myself. The loss of a baby followed by a daughter coming home pregnant? Well, the issues really write themselves with that kind of storyline. I might be interested in reading this one to compare our reactions, but I am not chomping at the bit to grab it yet, so I will have to see. Fantastic and very astute review today.

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    1. Thanks, Zibilee! I was surprised to see it as a NYTimes Notable Book last year and that it made the Orange longlist. I think I'd call it more women's fiction, but she is a strong writer.

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  3. I hate when the writing seems forced.

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    1. Me too. Especially when it's clear she *is* a good writer.

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  4. Another great review -- I too rolled my eyes about the baby-pregnant daughter bit and passed on this one -- and after this review, I'm glad -- I think it would have bothered me.

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    1. I love a deep exploration of theme from many angles, but I just didn't buy it as anything more than an exercise in doing it here.

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  5. Unfortunately this one wasn't available in my library system but it doesn't sound as though it will get short-listed anyway. It does sound gimmicky.

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    1. Sam--I've learned never to be certain something won't be shortlisted after Rosie Alison two years ago. Of the ten I've read so far, I wouldn't place this one on the shortlist, but that doesn't mean much;-)

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  6. I felt like Jess was both gimmicky and useless as a character. And then the ending - oh the ending! - it made me a little grumpy.
    Overhyped indeed.

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    1. It's definitely a book I enjoyed less as I went on. I concur about Jess. She surprised me initially, but then it just began to feel cheap.

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  7. Sounds like this one had a lot of potential. Too bad the story fell flat.

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    1. I think some people might have loved it, but there just wasn't quite enough for me.

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  8. I was looking forward to your review of this because I thought this book looked really good. I'm disappointed that you didn't love it. I'm still curious about the family, though, and how that subject is handled. But I'm also not in a hurry now what with the millions of books I have on my must read now list, lol.

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    1. I know what you mean! I get that way sometimes even with books others rate 'only' four stars. So many books, so little time!

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  9. The plot sounds so good so this is really disappointing. Here's to all the others shortlisted!

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    1. There are certainly some excellent reads on this year's list, and I cannot wait to read the rest!

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  10. I have this one on my wishlist so hopefully I can pick a copy up before my trip in May!

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!