Tag Archives: grief

THE SWEETHEART DEAL by Polly Dugan

[First, a note – somewhere along the way, I stopped including the Depressing-o-Meter in my reviews. I miss it. I think I am going to add it back in. For the newbies, it measures, on a scale of 1 to 10, how depressing the reviewed book is. Most books reviewed on EDIWTB fall into the 6-9 category.]

Last year, I reviewed a collection of short stories by Polly Dugan called So Much A Part Of You. I really enjoyed it, and noted that she had a novel coming out in 2015 that I was looking forward to reading. That novel is now out and it’s called The Sweetheart Deal.

Don’t be misled by the cozy domestic photo on the cover, or by the plot – firefighter husband dies in an accident and best friend moves in to help widow, who is unaware that husband once made best friend sign an agreement that he would take care of widow if anything ever happened to husband – which both suggest conventional women’s fiction with a predictable ending. That’s not really what The Sweetheart Deal is.

Dugan’s writing is spare and matter-of fact. The Sweetheart Deal is told from multiple perspectives – wife Audrey, best friend Garrett, and Audrey’s three sons, switching off each chapter. I liked her attention to detail and the very realistic way that she described how the characters felt and related to each other. I felt like I was in the room with them, watching familiar scenes unfold in ways that made perfect sense. Dugan’s depiction of grief was pretty powerful, especially from Audrey’s perspective. There is a scene that really stuck with me, where Audrey is so incapable of functioning that she can’t even pull an outfit together to leave the house. Her interactions with her sons also seemed very accurate to me.

Of course the main focus of the book is the relationship between Garrett and Audrey. That was the weaker link in the story. I didn’t doubt that the two developed feelings for each other, but I wanted to know why. In order to root for them as a couple and believe that they were right for each other outside of Garrett’s promise to his best friend, I needed to see stronger evidence of their independent connection. Garrett knew Audrey for many years before he flew to Portland to help her through her grief. What did he think of her then, and how did his feelings change, or emerge, when he got to Portland? These questions nagged at me a little while I was reading the book. I just wanted more.

Overall, though, The Sweetheart Deal is readable, engrossing and moving. It’s a small story in scope, with only a handful of characters, but it takes on big, universal issues with understanding and empathy. It wasn’t a perfect read, but it was definitely worth the time. I hope Dugan has more novels in her.

Depressing-0-Meter: 7. It’s about death and grieving, so a 7 is actually pretty good.

 

RARE BIRD: A MEMOIR OF LOVE AND LOSS by Anna Whiston-Donaldson

Anna Whiston-Donaldson and I run loosely in the same DC blogging circles. We’ve never met, but I learned about her and started reading her blog, An Inch of Gray, after her 12 year-old son Jack was killed in a freak drowning accident in September 2011. He was out playing in the rain with friends on a late summer afternoon and got caught in the current in a tiny neighborhood creek that had flooded due to a very unusual strong summer storm.

I soon learned of Jack’s death and started following Whiston-Donaldson’s blog, which quickly reoriented to focus on her family’s loss in the aftermath of that terrible September day. I was always struck by how honest she was about her anger and sadness about Jack’s death, as well as her strong Christian faith and how she could reconcile the two. She published a book this past September, Rare Bird: A Memoir of Love and Loss, which was my first read of 2015.

Rare Bird is an extremely sad book – how could it not be? The loss of this beautiful, sensitive, smart, sweet boy was a tragedy. And to learn about it from his mother’s perspective? Heartbreaking. It’s impossible to read Rare Bird and not put yourself in the author’s shoes, trying to imagine how you’d put one foot in front of other other if it happened to you. But it is not a depressing book, and that is an important difference. It is unflinchingly honest in every respect. Whiston-Donaldson holds nothing back as she relates the days leading up to Jack’s death and the year after. She talks about her marriage, her faith, her thoughts of ending her life, and the importance of staying present and capable for Jack’s younger sister, Margaret. She also talks about her grief and how she eventually emerged from that first, awful year. Perhaps that is why I didn’t find it depressing, even though it brought me to tears on many occasions.

Whiston-Donaldson is also a very good writer. Rare Bird is readable, clear, and even funny at times. Writing is definitely one of her talents, and I am grateful that she took the time to adapt her blog and memories into this longer format.

There is a fair amount in Rare Bird about Whiston-Donaldson’s Christian faith and how Jack’s loss tested it. I am Jewish and therefore couldn’t necessarily relate to some of what she wrote, but I still found it interesting and compelling.

Don’t be afraid to read Rare Bird. I had a hard time putting it down and I am so glad that I read it. I learned a lot from it, and I am grateful for Whiston-Donaldson’s honesty and analytical, challenging mind. I wish her and her family peace in the coming years and will always keep Jack in my mind.

AN AVAILABLE MAN by Hilma Wolitzer


Hilma Wolitzer’s An Available Man is a gentle, almost bittersweet book about Edward Schuyler, a widower in his early 60s whose sudden single status makes him a desirable target for the available women in his social sphere. When the book opens, Edward is not ready to date, despite his friends’ and stepchildren’s attempts to set him up and find women by placing a personal ad for him. Edward goes on a few (disastrous) dates, swears off dating, and retreats to Martha’s Vineyard, where he is surrounded of memories of summer vacations with his late wife, Bea.

The rest of the book follows, somewhat predictably, the next stages of Edward’s increasing comfort with the idea of being with someone. A woman from his past re-enters his life, pushing him back into intimacy and forcing him to confront his fears of being vulnerable, and of hurting the people who loved Bea.

An Available Man is a quiet book. It is a bit predictable, as I noted above. That said, I liked it quite a bit. I liked Edward, who was smart and self-deprecating and generally a kind, good person. I thought Wolitzer’s depiction of the stages of grief – particularly the later stages – was poignant and believable. I liked that the characters in the book were older but interesting and relatable. There was a wry humor that threaded throughout the book and balanced out the very sad parts.

One character bothered me quite a bit, as I suspect she was intended to.

I listened to An Available Man mostly on audio, and it was very good. Narrator Fred Sullivan conveyed the perfect mix of humor and sadness, and he sounded just like a well-educated sixtysomething who lives in Jersey and teaches high school biology.  I highly recommend the audio version.

I am adding a new feature to EDIWTB: The Depressing-O-Meter. I will rank how depressing every book I read is on a scale from 1-10, with 1 being “this book filled me with joy” and 10 being “I can barely go on with life now that I have experienced this story”. If I have time (ha) I will go back and rank earlier books on EDIWTB.

I rank An Available Man a 6.5 on the Depressing-O-Meter. There are a lot of sad parts relating to Edward’s wife’s death and the grief he and their family experience, but ultimately it’s a hopeful book. Wolitzer’s tone is more bittersweet than sad.

Whatever they’re drinking in the Wolitzer household, they should bottle it and sell it. Good writers come out of that house.