I know. It is the height of bad taste to give a bad review to a book about grieving. So I won't call this a bad review. I will simply call it a "review of a book that wasn't for me."
The book in question is Roger Rosenblatt's short memoir Making Toast: A Family Story. The story itself is insanely sad; Rosenblatt writes about the sudden death of his thirty-eight-year-old daughter Amy, who left behind not only a husband and a career as a pediatrician, but also three very young children. She died suddenly, while exercising at home, of an "anomalous right coronary artery"--in circumstances which seem doubly tragic because her children were the first ones to find her and her surgeon husband tried to revive her but couldn't. Rosenblatt and his wife Ginny moved in with their son-in-law and their grandchildren immediately, and the memoir is his account of the year after Amy's death.
It's really not a bad book. The writing is beautiful and anyone who's lost a close family member or loved one, or watched a parent struggle with the untimely death of their child, will recognize many of the family's struggles and griefs. Although it cannot, by definition, have a happy ending, it does read as a celebration of a beloved daughter's life and a testament to the power of family and relationships, even relationships that turn out to be different than everyone had planned.
But it was not a book I can heartily recommend. I am convinced that Amy Elizabeth Rosenblatt Solomon was a singular person. And perhaps a father can never really look critically on a daughter, particularly when she's died too soon. But I never really felt like I got to know her--and by that, I never got any glimpse of her that was less than perfect, less than beatified. And maybe that's the point. But I must admit that I get more out of stories in which authors explore just a bit more of their loved ones' less saintly qualities. The sadness and loss in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne, was palpable; yet I didn't feel that Dunne was a saint or that their marriage was always perfect. (In fact Didion seemed more than honest about some of their struggles.) It's been a long time since I read it, but I don't think C.S. Lewis's brief book A Grief Observed was solely about how his beloved wife Joy Gresham was perfect. In fact it rather felt like he missed her all the more because she was imperfect (although, arguably, perfect for him). Although it was published as a novel, I also never got the feeling that Norman Maclean's brother Paul was without fault in his title A River Runs Through It--a fact which only made me like Paul, and by extension, Norman, even more.
It's probably very wrong of me, but the small item that stood out most to me in this memoir was Rosenblatt's recounting of his grandchildren's nanny Ligaya's wisdom:
"Ligaya is a small, lithe woman in her early fifties. I know little of her life except that she is from the Philippines, with a daughter there and a grown son here who is a supervisor in a restaurant, and that she has a work ethic of steel and the flexibility to deal with any contingency...Ligaya altered her schedule to be with us twelve hours a day, five days a week--an indispensible gift, especially to her small charge [Rosenblatt's youngest grandson James], who giggles with delight when he hears her key in the front door. No one outside the family could have felt Amy's death more acutely. Yet what she said to Harris, and to the rest of us, was dispassionate: 'You are not the first to go through such a thing, and you are better able to handle it than most.'" (pp. 7-8.)
I think I'm going to remember that one for a long time. I'm going to remember it next time I'm in the depths of despair (and there's always a next time). I think what I really want is to read a book about this Ligaya woman.