Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Book Review: "Things I'm Seeing Without You" by Peter Bognanni

"The morning after I dropped out of high school, I woke up before dawn in my father's empty house thinking about the slow death of the universe. It smelled like Old Spice and middle-aged sadness in the guest room, and this was probably at least part of the reason for my thoughts of total cosmic annihilation. The other part I blame on physics. The class I mean. Not the branch of science."

Tess has been in a downward spiral since Jonah died. She met Jonah at a party although he attended college in Boston. They spent time together one night (although she spent most of it puking and/or sleeping after drinking too much), and then began a long-distance relationship via text, chat, and email. Even though they kept talking about seeing each other again, Jonah always seemed to put off making plans, but still, Tess was content. More than content—she fell in love with him.

Can you sustain a relationship when you never see the other person? Tess and Jonah shared every thought, even inventing a game called "Things I'm seeing without you," where each person describes what they are seeing at that moment in time.

"At some point, I didn't know when, life had only started to feel real when I wrote to him about it. I was a better, funnier version of myself when I told him things. Life was manageable that way. My brain was manageable."

She had no idea Jonah suffered from depression, and was utterly unprepared for his suicide. In fact, she didn't even know what happened until she saw things people posted on his Facebook wall. Unable to cope, she dropped out of the Quaker high school she was attending in Iowa and decamped to her father's house in Minneapolis, where he has lived since her parents' divorce. She has no motivation to do anything, yet she continues to write to Jonah, and that gives her a little bit of comfort.

As she tries unsuccessfully to process Jonah's death and how it has affected her, she starts helping her father with his latest business venture, as a funeral planner who dabbles in animal funerals. (Don't ask about the exploding dog.) While she first sloughs it off as a joke, she starts becoming emotionally invested in helping their clients, realizing that giving a person a funeral how they want it to be is a much better gift than she'd imagine. It's the kind of closure that causes her even more emotional pain.

One day, Tess gets a message that completely knocks her for a loop. Suddenly her pain and sadness are mixed with anger, loss, and betrayal, and she doesn't know how to process these feelings. She doesn't know what to do or how to handle her feelings, which causes a great deal of tension between Tess, her father, and a rival funeral planner who is barely holding her own self together.

Can you mourn someone you might not have really known? How do you handle a loss that seems to utterly encompass you to the point where you're incapable of doing anything else? What is the proper way to say goodbye to someone you've loved? Peter Bognanni strives to answer those questions, as best as they really can be answered, in Things I'm Seeing Without You.

I first discovered Bognanni's writing when I read his amazing book, The House of Tomorrow. Some of the same emotion and angst that characterized that book is present here, as is Bognanni's talent for storytelling. There is a great deal of poignancy in this book, and some truly beautiful moments. The dialogue between Jonah and Tess, and even some of Tess' interactions with others, is clever and often funny, without being too precious or sophisticated.

My main challenge with the book is that Tess is a fairly unsympathetic character, even before she has a reason to be. That made it a little more difficult to feel her pain, because she was so mean to everyone else, even though that meanness was caused by grief. I understood why she felt the way she did, but she kept everyone at such an emotional remove. I also felt like it took a little too long to come to a conclusion—things dragged on a bit longer than I felt they needed to.

That being said, I was moved by Things I'm Seeing Without You, and it's made me think about life and relationships a little differently. Bognanni is such a great writer, and now I'll begin the wait for his next book!

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