Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Grief of Others" Speaks to Suburbia

When I read a review of Leah Hager Cohen’s novel The Grief of Others, I was curious how it would compare to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. ¬The books possess similar elements, a fraying family, suburbia, secrets. As readers of Booking Around are aware, I did not like Freedom. I felt differently about The Grief of Others.

The Ryries live outside of New York City in a pleasant neighborhood and have two children. John also has an elder daughter from a relationship in college. And the Ryries have just lost their infant son. Ricky chose to carry the baby to term, though she knew he would survive only a few hours after his birth. He had a rare defect where his skull didn’t properly form to protect his brain. Ricky kept this knowledge from her husband John and her secretive decisions has opened a vast chasm between them and shaken the constructs of their family.

The shift has affected both their children, and the parents seem just mildly aware of the impact their marital trouble is having. Paul is being bullied by his peers, and Biscuit has started skipping school for no reason they can discern at the early age of ten. John’s first daughter, and their half-sister, Jessica shows up with a pregnancy of her own, and it is her presence that begins to bring the Ryries’ rupture to light.

What Hager Cohen draws from her characters is the human despair and desire to improve that Franzen failed to imbue in the Berglunds. They infuriated me because they saw their problems but wouldn’t attempt to repair them and answered the situation by destroying the lives of the people around them instead. The Ryries are similarly on fragile ground, and while the behavior that occurs may be hurtful, it is not cruel. The complexity of desires and selfishness of people, even mothers and fathers, is not overlooked by Hager Cohen, but neither is it indulged.

Gordie is another character who comes into the frame of the Ryries lives. He is of college age and has lost his father to cancer. He happens to spot Biscuit as she falls into the river and brings the sodden child home and finds himself welcomed into a home that doesn’t seem to have room for each other. He is suffering from his own grief and confusion about who he is now that he has one less template of personhood to compare to.

Hager Cohen gets deep into the heads of all of her characters, illustrating each with clear and sometimes startling illuminations of their thoughts. Her writing has the qualities of a river, direct in its course but able to respond to changes in light and interferences. The book is about recovering from crisis. Moving beyond what one believes one is capable of in order to be there for the ones left behind. The Ryries struggle to revitalize what they have built without razing their first attempt. The work is hard but the ability to reflect is available to them and recognized.

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