The Grief of Others: A Novel by Leah Hager Cohen (Riverhead Books; $26.95; 388 pages)
While an author can develop some great sentences and paragraphs in a novel, using language that is either stunningly creative or even gorgeous, it doesn’t mean much if the tale being told does not advance. In The Grief of Others, a promising and potentially engaging story is overwhelmed by obtuse storytelling. Because of this, I found the novel to be far more frustrating than pleasing.
The story revolves around Ricky Ryrie, wife and mother of two, who loses a third child (a male) 57 hours after his birth. The child was diagnosed with Anencephaly four months prior to its birth, a fact that Ricky kept from her husband John. Since Ricky once had an affair with a work colleague, this raises serious trust issues in the marriage; a marriage which may not survive the tragedy. Ricky would not let John hold or touch the baby while it was alive, and so he goes on to remind her, “This was my child. Too.”
But it’s not just Ricky’s story that’s covered here… We also witness John’s, and those of the children – 13-year-old Paul and 11-year-old Biscuit – and of Jess, John’s daughter by another woman. And then there’s Gordie, a young man who attaches himself to the Ryries in much the same manner as the troubled young man Kiernan does with the Lathams in Anna Quindlen’s novel Every Last One.
Unfortunately, Cohen’s book does not seem to handle the issue of overwhelming, shattering grief as effectively as Quindlen’s story; nor does it tackle the issues of marital trust and fidelity quite as well as Commuters, the near brilliant debut novel by Emily Gray Tedrowe. There may simply be too many characters on the stage here, another one of whom is Will, Gordie’s very sick father. Cohen seems to have spread herself, and her story, a bit too thin. Some of the writing is admirable as when John notices that the instant tragedy seems to foster “in everyone around him a sudden, alarming presumption of intimacy.” (It can be a tad frightening when strangers and coworkers are seemingly a bit too kind and understanding.)
Of all the characters, Ricky’s daughter Biscuit is the one that appears to be the most true-to-life, as if she had been created by Lesley Kagen (Whistling in the Dark, Good Graces); however, the key problem is that the young children Paul and Biscuit are saddled with the thoughts of adults, thoughts that simply don’t seem credible.
Biscuit thinks that, “Her parents seemed like the books you could see (in a bookcase): they smiled and spoke and dressed and made supper and went off to work and all the other things they were supposed to do, but something, a crucial volume, had slipped down in back and couldn’t be reached.”
Paul, meanwhile, worries that, “(His parents) couldn’t seem to detect anything wrong with each other, never mind that his mother had been silent for most of the past year, or that his father, for all his apparent optimism, was beginning to show fissures.” How many 13-year-olds would know the meaning of the word fissures, let alone think in such terms?
An intriguing twist – a pregnant Jess lands on the family’s doorstep almost one year after the family’s tragedy of losing the baby – tends to get lost after all this. This is an almost 400 page novel that feels, in the reading, to be almost twice that long. At one point, Ricky thinks about her “unbearable helplessness,” and her loneliness in carrying to term a defective child: “The thought exhausted her.”
This read was something of an exhausting experience.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.