ALL MY PUNY SORROWS *

“My mother was often asked to write eulogies, because she had a breezy style that was playful, good with details, and totally knife-in-the-heart devastating.”

So says the protagonist in Miriam Toews’ unusual book ALL MY PUNY SORROWS. Those eulogies are easy to imagine, after reading this breezy, detailed, and devastating novel.

The story is of two sisters whose love for each other is powerful. The kind of love in which thoughts often transcend words and nothing is off limits. Raised by quirky parents in a Mennonite community, the sisters have the intellectual curiosity that keeps their conversations and the story lively. One sister is a concert pianist, whose fondest and obsessive wish is to die and it’s her sister’s love that leads to the possibility of assisted suicide as the overarching theme of the book.

Each character is distinctive… from a gentle father who goes door-to-door to petition for a town library to the guitar-playing psych ward nurse. Here’s the sister returning to her mother’s home where a regular online Scrabble game is in process:

“I heard the trumpets sound the end of my mom’s game with Mankiller and the slap of her laptop computer closing. Then she was there, standing in the doorway. How are you, sweetheart? What have you been up to? Having unprotected sex with your mechanic and researching ways to kill your daughter, Not much, I said, got the stuff from the car. Doing some work.”

Near the end of the book, a very large Christmas tree has finally been secured in the living room.  Wine and relaxed conversation with mother, daughter, and granddaughter ensue… and then:

“Then my mother shouted and Nora and I turned around in slo-mo, Kanye got loud again, and we watched the tree fall. It fell slowly at first, discreetly, like it was having a heart attack in public and it didn’t want this to be happening but it was happening. Then it picked up speed and as it crashed to the floor it took things with it, a painting of two boys playing in puddles, the television, the books on top of the piano, a sculpture of a girl in a dress being shy, an almost empty coffee cup and a large plant. It finished falling and lay still on the floor.”

This is a book about falling and the people and things that get swept up in the fall. Not an easy topic, but written with grace and style. And lots of love.

*do you recognize the title quotation? the source is revealed in the book.

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