Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Torch, by Cheryl Strayed

Teresa Rae Woods is in her late 30s; in a long-term relationship with Bruce; the mother of Claire (a senior in college) and Joshua (a senior in high school); the host of a hippy-dippy public radio program that ends with the exhortation "Work hard. Do good. Be incredible"; and a waitress at a diner in her small Minnesota town. Then she is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Treatment proves futile, and she dies within months, as Claire and Bruce sit by her bedside and Joshua avoids the rest of the family, starting a career as a small-time drug courier and dropping out of school.

Following Teresa's death, Claire and Bruce join Joshua in a downward spiral. Claire, who has had a brief affair with a man whose wife was dying in the same hospital with her mother, breaks up with her boyfriend, drops out of school, and ends up working in the same diner where her mom was a waitress. Bruce first plans to commit suicide, then--apparently saved by a Kenny G tape--abruptly enters a relationship with a neighbor, marries her a scant three months after Teresa's death, and essentially drops out of Claire and Joshua's lives. Josh gets his girlfriend pregnant and spends time in jail.

Those who have read Strayed's much-ballyhooed nonfiction book Wild know that some aspects of the Woods family's experience mirror the loss of her own mother and subsequent dissolution of her family. This perhaps explains why the descriptions of Teresa's illness and death are both grueling and convincing. Unfortunately, I was unmoved by Claire, Joshua, and Bruce's experiences following Teresa's death--Claire and Joshua are in great pain, but I didn't really feel that pain. The chapters narrated from their perspectives seemed as flat and lifeless as the sappy "Work hard. Do good. Be incredible" tagline that runs through the book. The lifelessness is puzzling; given the devastation Strayed experienced after her mother's death, I would expect her to be able to plumb some serious depths. Yet I was not entirely surprised, since I found the descriptions of her emotional growth in Wild  lacking as well. It may just be that I am too prejudiced against Strayed to enjoy this book, but, whatever the reason, I wouldn't recommend it.

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