The Grief of Others
By Leah Hager Cohen
Riverhead Hardcover September 2011
From the library
This book looks at the lives of the Ryrie family as they deal with the loss of their baby son and brother from anencephaly. John wonders how to reconnect with his wife after the tragedy. Ricky must confess to her husband that she knew about the baby’s illness and kept the terrible secret from him. Their children are having a difficult time as well. Thirteen year old Paul is dealing not only with a changing family dynamic, but with bullying at school as well. Ten year old Biscuit is searching for a way to make her family whole again; looking to ancient funeral rituals as a way to bring closure to the people she loves. In the midst of this painful time, John’s daughter Jess shows up unexpectedly with a baby on the way.
I really wanted to like this book. Unfortunately, it was really uneven. The journey of John and Ricky as parents and husband and wife is really powerful. I think the book shines the most in these sections. Unfortunately the sections with Biscuit and Paul, while interesting, don’t resonate at the same level. Then Ms. Cohen brings in an additional family member – Jess, who is John’s daughter from another relationship. The readers then follow Jess as she deals with her unexpected pregnancy, a tragedy of her own, and a budding friendship with Gordie, a local man whose father has recently died. Unfortunately, this storyline doesn’t add a lot to the story. While it seems Jess is supposed to serve as an impetus for the Ryrie family to heal, it’s an idea that isn’t seen through to the end.
There are however, some really beautiful moments. Cohen writes well about the quiet moments of grief – the ones that tear families apart and those that, even in the midst of sorrow, bring them together. “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.”
But…the part that really drove me crazy was the ending. (No real spoilers, promise!) After you have gone on this journey with this family, the author does this “pull back camera” bit where a new omniscient narrator observes that these people and these events are not really important or different from any other family. The author declines to give you answers to some key questions raised in the book. This is not forgetfulness, she tells the readers that whatever happened does not matter. This is infuriating. Instead of ending with the characters that you have hopefully come to love, you end the book with some random people in a park in an effort to show universality.
The Grief of Others has some really poignant, insightful moments. But the book as a whole is uneven and the ending may make you a sudden proponent of book-throwing.