THE GRIEF OF OTHERS by Leah Hager Cohen

Have I possibly reached my limit of domestic fiction?

I’ve had The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen on my TBR list for a while. It is about short period of time in the life of a family in crisis (surprise!) – The Ryries. Mom Ricky, dad John, and kids Paul and Biscuit (Elizabeth) – have suffered a terrible loss: the death of their baby brother Simon 57 hours after his birth. It is almost a year later, and the family is each dealing with this loss in his or her own private way. Ricky is distant and ignoring her other children, while John is trying to hold things together and simmering with anger at never having been allowed to hold his son. Biscuit is privately studying funeral traditions from other cultures, trying to understand how to remember and honor the brother she never got to know, and Paul is facing bullying at school and not confiding in anyone.

These four souls are careening, spiraling away from each other at the time when they need each other the most. Cohen includes a lot of flashbacks to times when Ricky and John’s marriage was stronger, when Ricky was happier and a more attentive mother. So we know that there is a strong foundation, but it is at risk.

The Ryries’ savior arrives in the form of an unexpected visitor: Jess, John’s daughter from a brief relationship in his 20s, who appears on the Ryries’ doorstep, pregnant. She and John have almost no relationship and haven’t seen each other in a decade, yet it is to the Ryries she flees when she finds herself unexpectedly expecting. Jess’ impact on the family is immediate and dramatic. Ricky accommodates and supports Jess, in part because doing so helps exonerate past transgressions against John, and in part because it allows her to channel her grief into hope for this new baby. The kids have their own unique relationships with Jess (who at least is paying attention to them), and John doesn’t know what to do with his grown, unfamiliar daughter. Yet her presence helps force the four to confront, as a family, what they’ve lost.

The Grief of Others is a good book – well-written and compelling (with the most devastating opening pages I’ve ever read – wow!) – but it left me sort of cold. I was certainly sad for this family, but Cohen’s minute, scorched-earth analysis of Ricky and John’s relationship was too much even for me. Too much detail, too much introspection. Not a lot actually happens in this book; there is a lot of going over old events and dissecting them from multiple angles. In the end, I found it all a little tedious. (I listened to this one on audio and that may have made it worse, because audiobooks are slower.)

The narration of the audio of The Grief of Others is overall pretty good, though the narrator’s voice sounds quite a bit older at times than the character she is voicing, which was jarring. But she is sympathetic and non-judgmental of these flawed characters.

Overall, I enjoyed The Grief of Others, but when I reached the end, I felt overly drained. Am I ready for a break from the tragedies of everyday families? Or was this one particularly difficult to get through? Time will tell.