Hearing the set-up for this novel made me wonder if I was made of stern enough stuff to get through it. Yoli, a divorced woman in her forties, with plenty of her own problems, has to repeatedly try to talk her much-loved (and much more successful) married older sister Elfrieda out of killing herself. And then, failing that, sit by her bedside after an unsuccessful attempt, nurse her back to physical if not mental health, and begin the process again. Oh, and their father killed himself, too, so there’s a family history of it already. Sounds like a real joyride, doesn’t it?
I was introduced to Toews’ writing by a Canadian librarian who used to work at Cal Poly, and I loved her earlier novel, A Complicated Kindness. Both books are set in Canada, in a Mennonite community, which is Toews’ background as well. For me, Toews has a lock on skillfully combining tragedy and comedy, one of my favorite mixes in fiction. Puny Sorrows is no exception. I’m almost positive I could never be that patient a sister, but Toews somehow makes it believable. Still, one of the most satisfying and realistic parts of the book is the scene where Yoli, at Elfie’s bedside once again, finally runs out of sympathy:
Okay, okay, she said Don’t do that. You look so defeated.
I said well for god’s sake, Elfie, how do you think I should look?
I need you to be okay, she said. I need you to–
Okay, said Elf. Shhhh. Please. Let’s not talk. I’m sorry.
Have you ever thought about what I might need? I said. Has it occurred to you ever in your life that I’m the one that’s colossally fucked up and could use some sisterly support every once in a while? Have you ever got on an airplane every two weeks to rush to my side when I’m feeling like shit and wanting to die? Has it ever occurred to you that I’m not okay, that everything in my life is embarrassing, that I got knocked up twice by two different guys and had two divorces and and two affairs that were — are — not only a nightmare but also a cliche… Has it ever occurred to you that I have also lost my father to suicide, that I also am having a hard time getting over it … and that I also often think the whole thing is a ridiculous farce and that the only intelligent response to it is suicide but that I pull back from that conclusion…?
I made myself wait till I finished the book to look up Toews’ actual biography. It added an extra level of sadness to learn that the story very closely parallels her own.
author photo: The Globe and Mail