The Grief of Others Hardcover – Sep 15 2011
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“Cohen creates gorgeous, uncommon descriptions that sound like grace notes on her pages. . . . There’s pain in reading this book, but there’s another thread running through it, too, gleaming with all the vibrancy of Cohen’s prose: hope.”—The Washington Post
“In this subtle portrait of family life she shows the maddening arithmetic of marriage, the useless attempts to balance the equation. As Ricky and John’s kids start to come unglued themselves, we see how the grief of others is contagious. . . . Ms. Cohen’s painstaking excavation pays off, especially as Ricky and John decide to rebuild.”—The New York Times
“The death of a newborn triggers the slow collapse of the Ryrie clan in Hager Cohen’s richly layered new novel. . . . Affecting.”—More
“Part of the novel's pathos lies in its ability to offer its characters a level of perceptive acuity and sympathetic attention they cannot offer one another … The book's brilliance lies in moments like this one, these shards of devastating insight. Cohen's empathy is sure-footed and seemingly boundless; her writing gifts its characters with glints of ordinary human radiance. It is the possibility of this glinting that ultimately becomes Cohen's most powerful gift to us, her readers, as well.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“With this incredibly moving commentary, Cohen has secured a place in the lineup of today’s great writers.”—Bookpage
“Cohen’s stunning writing and ruthless, beautiful magnification of soul-crushing sorrow that threatens the Ryries’ day-to-day family life mesmerizes, wounds, and possibly even heals her readers. Her courageous novel (she knows of what she writes) is to be savored.”—Library Journal
“With gorgeous prose, Cohen skillfully takes us from past to present and back again as she explores the ramifications of family loss, grief and longing.”—Kirkus
“This is an ambitious novel offering insight into the rift between the public and the private, and illuminating the many ways in which we deal with tragedy.”—Publishers Weekly
“Leah Hager Cohen's new novel is a perceptive, absorbing drama about the complex bonds of the modern American family and the treacherous paradox of the way we live now. Somehow, the more open and flexible we try to become as spouses and parents, the more emotional risks we take—and the more secrets we keep. I love how deeply Cohen delves into the hearts of all her characters, bringing them fully alive, from their most heroic strivings to their darkest flaws.”—Julia Glass, author of The Widower’s Tale
“How does a family transcend its own pain? How do the secrets we keep shape our lives and the lives of those we love? In this gracefully written, elegantly structured novel, Leah Hager Cohen has created an indelible cast of characters whose story is at once wrenching and redemptive. This is a beautiful book.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Family History
“The Grief of Others is a gorgeous, absorbing, intricately told tale of one family on the brink of collapse, as well as an intimate exploration of art and its place in our lives. Leah Hager Cohen expertly juggles six characters and all their needs, yearning, wounds, and secrets with tremendous skill and—even more important—deep and tender compassion. She is a masterlyl writer on every level.”—Lily King, author of Father of the Rain
“The Grief of Others is delicate, haunting, and lovely, and very difficult to leave on the shelf.”—Susanna Daniel, author of Stiltsville
“A wise and compassionate novel that looks frankly at the ways members of a family can wound and betray each other, even when trying to do just the opposite. Readers will be tempted to vilify Ricky, but she’s much too complex for that. Despite the lies, subterfuges, and silences these characters inflict on one another, there are no villains here, just a family trying to carry on.”—Suzanne Berne, author of The Ghost at the Table
“At once compact and sweeping. Cohen never strikes a false note in relating the complicated emotions of her characters. She has created a world both universal and particular. She illuminates all the ways it is glorious to be burdened with full-fledged humanity in the vast universe.” —Robb Forman Dew, author of The Evidence Against Her
About the Author
Leah Hager Cohen is the author of four nonfiction books, including Train Go Sorry and Glass, Paper, Beans, and three novels, most recently House Lights. Among the honors her books have received are selection as a New York Times Notable Book (four times); inclusion in the American Library Association Ten Best Books of the Year; and selection as a Book Sense 76 pick. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review.
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Top Customer Reviews
Each member of The Ryrie family suffers as a result of the tragic loss described in the novel's first chapter: John harbours guilt for choosing the "fun" career of theatre design; Ricky resents her generous corporate paycheck; Biscuit (Elizabeth) cuts school and becomes obsessed with funereal practices; and Paul fights a lonely battle against school bullies. The book's cast also includes the eccentric Gordie and his Newfie, who befriend the Ryeries serendipitously as well as Jess, John's daughter from a previous relationship, who keeps secrets of her own.
Cohen works magic with figurative language; her prose conveys delicacy, edginess and meaning while her tone remains free from maudlin sentimentality. The private trials of her characters and their displays of unresolved anguish hold the reader's engagement. The plot does demand a degree of belief suspension because the complexity of Ricky's tragedy, based on an unrealistic decision, damages the story's authenticity. What is believable, however, is the grace and unity each character ultimately attains.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
John and Ricky Ryrie are struggling with their own personal demons and the slow disintegration of their marriage. Caught up in their own private pain, they are not initially aware that their behavior has adversely affected their two children. Ricky has kept an important secret from her husband. She knew that their third child had a very poor diagnosis, and would not live for long after birth. She chooses not to share this information with her husband, till many months into the pregnancy. As in "Catcher in the Rye" their 11 year old daughter, Biscuit, has been unable to find closure after the death. Their 13 year old son, Paul, has turned secretive and he is bullied in school and finds he cannot count of his mother and father the way he use to. Into this household enters Jess, John's pregnant daughter from a previous relationship, who is hoping to capture the joy she felt when she came for a visit with this family many years ago. The final character is a young man, who takes Biscuit home after an incident, who is also grieving for a loved one. He finds even this damaged family is better than having none at all.
While I thought this book was well-written, I found it a little difficult to connect with all of the characters. At times, it was like I was seeing them from a distance. I saw them going through the emotions, but I did not have that visceral connection I would have liked. They say to understand is to forgive, I had some trouble understanding what made these characters tick. I would still recommend this book, especially to those readers who like their families in turmoil.
Instead, I was immediately drawn to the fragile, brittle beauty of this story, of author Leah Hager Cohen's words. The premise of the book immediately inspires sadness...as a mother I cannot even fathom the thought of losing a child, and yet there is something about this book that grabbed onto me and wouldn't let me go.
"He was out of the womb and alive in the world for fifty-seven hours - a tally that put him in rare statistical company and caused in his mother an absurd sense of pride - during which time she kissed his ears and insteps and toes and palms and knuckles and lips repeatedly, a lifetime of kisses."
That paragraph is absolutely heartbreaking - but it feels so real that I was just in awe. As much as I never want to imagine the pain and grief of a mother holding her child that she knows does not have long to live, the way the author creates the images seem absolutely...right.
This is the story of a mother, and a father...and brother and sister...a family who must move on after tragedy but is unsure exactly what that "after" looks like.
There are many heartrending parts to this book. The scene where Ricky (the baby's mother) learns of her child's birth defect..."The radiologist there in the obstetric ultrasound suite explained that the condition was `incompatible with life', a phrase that took Ricky several seconds to understand, but which then struck her not as sneakily euphemistic but as surprisingly elegant and apt, free of judgment." This is a woman, who with her third child, heads to what should be a routine ultrasound thinking she will be coming home with a picture to hang on the fridge and admire, thinking this will be the first special picture of the newest member of their family ("The moment, that moment, of seeing the little profile!")...and who is instead dealt a devastating blow.
The grief and hurt and repressed feelings pile up in the members of the family...with few outlets as they try to pretend everything is all right after the death of the baby. Only Ricky was able to hold him, in fact, she was unable to let go. "...once he'd left her arms the force of her grief gouged her. She'd had no inkling it would be like this: not simply lonely-making, but corrosive. She was filled with hatred. Some of it for herself."
Something about that word, corrosive, stayed with me. Intense feelings can consume us - eat away at our soul. This woman, this family has a struggle to try and avoid that future, try and repair that which is eating away at them.
But along with their grief - there is beauty. There is love, and the memories of the joy and happiness that they once shared - the picture perfect moments that they need to hold on to through the darkest of times.
"...Ricky realizes that there have been a few stellar days, or parts of days: moments that seemed instantly to become emblazoned in her mind as postcards she will look back on. Scavenging for late season blueberries, and Biscuit turning out to be the best seeker of them all. Playing cards all day, the day it rained without stopping, and eating popcorn straight from the metal pot. Hiking on the blazed trails and logging roads that suddenly opened up and as suddenly stopped, like ghost boulevards in the old forest; the sun filtering down as if in slow motion through the crown cover, the light somehow altered, distilled, as though it had been sent from a long time ago."
The book was about people so fragile, so carefully patched together after disaster that it seemed as if too strong a breath might scatter the pieces. It is about people trying as best they can to hold on to the life they knew in the face of a tragedy they never expected. It is a lovely, sad, beautiful and emotional story of people. Of the frailty of human beings and the incredible strength of human love.
The writing is, indeed, beautiful. The story opens with Ricky Ryrie in a hospital bed, holding her newborn son who is fated to die within the next few hours. "The whorls of his ears were as marvelously convoluted as any Echer drawing, the symmetry precise, the lobs little as teardrops, soft as peaches," Ms. Cohen writes.
The aftermath of the newborns death will cause a vortex of emotions in each member of the family: Ricky, her husband John, their two children Paul and Biscuit, and John's grown daughter from a former dalliance, Jess. The children begin to act out in their own ways; Biscuit becomes obsessed with farewell rituals, Paul overeats and rails against his classmates' assessment of him. And Jess reflects, "What she remembers of the Ryries, the memory she cherished above all of her time with them on that single summer holiday eight years ago, was how shiny she had appeared in their eyes, how good and honorable and clean." She yearns for that feeling of being prized, at a time when the Ryries have nothing left to give.
All of this centers around accepting that Ricky, who finds out in her fifth month that she is pregnant with an anencephalic child - a child that is missing the major portion of his brain and also the top of his skull and scalp - chooses to go forward with her pregnancy, not telling anyone, even John, and pulling off a pretense that everything is fine for the next four months. Were she a religious person - or perhaps a woman who had striven long and hard to bear a child - one could understand her decision. She is told that the vast majority of women do not go through with the pregnancy). But the reader is given little insight into Ricky and why it is so important for her to carry this baby to term, knowing the heartache ahead, risking her marriage. When it comes, it's too little, too late.
I felt somewhat distanced from these characters, wanting to understand and relate to them more than I did. Ms. Cohen does a masterful job at portraying a family falling apart, isolated by grief, isolated from each other. If only the pivotal plot point had been developed a little more. Not quite 4 stars.
The first chapter was beautiful and heartbreaking. The rest of the book was just dull.
Characters are shallow, clueless and frustrating: The parents don't notice their son has lost most of his friends? They can't manage a 10 year old cutting school and almost burning the house down? Why is the mother surprised that her husband doesn't trust her when she's cheated twice and hid knowledge of the condition of their baby for months? Why does nobody seem concerned that a pregnant 23 year old has no plans and no ability to support herself?
The young man with the dog is by far the most sympathetic character, but his placement in the story seemed random.
Also, at 371 pages, the book is too long. About half way through, I started skipping pages, and barely finished the book.