All My Puny Sorrows / Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews is a well-known author in her own country of Canada, and she has a growing reputation here in the States as well. However, I had not heard of her until recently when I read an article in the literary magazine Granta which praised her work, and so I added her name to my “to read” list. When I checked out her body of work, one title leapt out: All My Puny Sorrows. With a title that good (borrowed from a Samuel Coleridge poem), I knew it was the book for me. And the novel lived up to (and exceeded) my expectations.

The story focuses on two sisters, Elf and Yoli, and their strong family network. On the surface, Elfrieda’s life is one that most people would envy. She is a world-renowned classical pianist, has traveled the world, and is happily married. Yolandi, on the other hand, is the one who at midlife still has not gotten her act together. She is divorced, has two children by different men, and the books she has authored have not caught the attention of the greater world. And yet looks are often deceiving. Elf has long suffered from major depression and desires to end her life. Not only that, she has already attempted suicide twice, only to be discovered and rescued by family members. Despite receiving psychological care, Elf does not waiver in her desire to end her life. Throughout, she attempts to draw Yoli into agreeing to help her do so.

Yoli serves as the story’s chronicler, and what a delightful narrator she makes. Her messy life is presented with humor despite a number of unexpected tragedies. It helps that her mother and aunt (fabulous characters who deserve starring roles in another story) are constant presences, there to provide emotional support and set a positive example with their resiliency.

Toews does not attempt to get into the mind of Elf or explain what motivates her to end her life. Instead, the author uses Yoli’s memories of her sister to give shape to her as a person. In the end, Elf’s motivations remained difficult for me to understand or accept. But that is probably not uncommon for those dealing with friends or family members who have major depression.

There is certainly plenty of sorrow on display in this novel. And yet the the tone throughout is humorous, showing the importance of family no matter what the difficulty, and how laughter heals in a time of tears. Some might call this novel dark. I disagree. Its message is not one of loss, but rather a declaration of love’s triumph in the darkest of times.

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