Sunday, December 14, 2014
Book Review: "All My Puny Sorrows" by Miriam Toews
Elf (Elfrieda) and Yoli (Yolandi) are sisters and best friends. Growing up in a Mennonite community outside of Winnipeg, they were tremendously close as they united against the way the community's elders treated women and tried to marginalize Elf's talent playing the piano. They also tried to understand the mood swings of their father, a gentle man who felt desperately passionate about so many things.
As adults, on the surface Elf leads a glamorous lifeshe has a devoted husband and a successful career as a renowned concert pianist, while Yoli has been divorced twice and is struggling to cope with raising her two children as they approach adulthood, as well as financial, romantic, and career difficulties. Yet Elf suffers from a crushing depression and desperately wants to end her life, although her attempts have all ended in failure.
"It was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem. She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other."
What Yoli wants is for Elf to finally get the treatment she so desperately needs, so she can finally enjoy her life and once again be the passionate, highly intelligent person Yoli knows and loves. And more than that, Yoli really wants her confidante again, wants someone to help guide her out of the mess that she is making with her life and help her regain the confidence she needs to move her writing career in a different direction. But despite the love of her husband, her family, and her fans, all Elf really wants is to die, so her suffering can end.
As hard as Yoli fights to change Elf's mind about dying, Elf fights just as hard to convince Yoli to help her end her life. How do you convince someone you love that their life is worth living when they are unable to see that for themselves? Is it our responsibility to help those we care about end their suffering?
I've never read anything by Miriam Toews before, but I was truly wowed by her ability to inhabit these characters. This is an incredibly moving book about the toll depression and suicide have not only on the person struggling, but on those who care about them. It's also a story about finding the strength to carry on when it feels like you have nothing left, and everything seems to be going against you.
This is a hard book to read because of the emotional nature of the subject matter and the suffering that the characters endure (and I've only scratched the surface in my description), but Toews' prose is so lyrical, almost poetic at times, and it truly immerses you in the story. At times it got a bit difficult because the hits kept on coming, and it was hard to watch Yoli make such a mess of her own life at the same time, but the beauty and power of Toews' writing compels you to soldier on.