Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Grief of Others, by Leah Hager Cohen

The prologue of The Grief of Others, titled "Last Year," is an elegiac recounting of an anencephalic baby's 57-hour life, as seen through the eyes of his mother, for whom we instantly feel great sympathy. Then Leah Hager Cohen moves us forward to "This Year," in which mother Ricky is considering driving into the Hudson River every time she crosses the river on her way home from work. But we begin to lose our sympathy for her when we realize her children, fifth-grader Biscuit (one of those nicknames acquired through a sibling's mispronunciation of a given name, in this case Elizabeth) and seventh-grader Paul are in deep trouble and her husband John is still reeling from the fact that Ricky did not tell him about the baby's difficulties when they were diagnosed midway through the pregnancy. Thus, he built the crib and otherwise prepared for the baby, while she knew the baby would die within hours of its birth.

The family is in deep trouble when Jess arrives. Jess is John's daughter from a college relationship, who has spent only one two-week vacation with them in her entire life. She is now a pregnant college grad, who lies and tells them her parents kicked her out of the house. The Ryries welcome her--indeed, Ricky hopes that her willingness to let Jess stay with them and the kindness she shows the young mom-to-be will somehow convince John of her goodness.

Cohen tells the story from the perspectives of all five family members, plus a young man, Gordie, who came to the rescue when Biscuit fell into the Hudson. The family members' perspectives both in the present, last year, and eight years ago (the time when Jess vacationed with them) all contribute to an understanding of how the members of the family have lost contact with each other, a process exacerbated but not caused by the loss of the baby. While Gordie theoretically adds to the examination of grief, since he recently lost his father, I found his perspective and the subplot involving him unnecessary.

Yesterday, I read an article by Time magazine's book critic, Lev Grossman, on why endings of books are overrated (; a book with a good beginning and middle, he says, is still a good book even if it has a bad ending. He might have had The Grief of Others in mind, as the ending is pretty bad. Not only does Cohen tie things up to neatly, in the last chapter she strangely begins to address the reader directly in a way that she hasn't before ("What else is there to tell? What else ought to be, must be, said?"). It's bizarre, as are a few other things I'll let you discover for yourself if you decide to read The Grief of Others because it is still a decent read, even with, to quote from Grossman, a "nonsense of an ending."

Favorite passage:
She was here on the spit because of them, because of the way her mother and her father had fallen down behind themselves. She thought of it like this, like the way a book can fall down behind all the others on a shelf, and in this way it's missing, only you don't know it to look at the shelf: all that you see looks orderly and complete. Her parents seemed like the books you could see: they smiled and spoke and dressed and made supper and went off to work and all the other things they were supposed to do, but something, a crucial volume, had slipped down in back and couldn't be reached.

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