Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Review: The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen

The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen

Publisher: Riverhead Books
Published Date: September 15, 2011
ISBN: 978-1594488054
Pages: 384
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Book Summary: The Ryries have suffered a loss: the death of a baby just fifty-seven hours after his birth. Without words to express their grief, the parents, John and Ricky, try to return to their previous lives. Struggling to regain a semblance of normalcy for themselves and for their two older children, they find themselves pretending not only that little has changed, but that their marriage, their family, have always been intact. Yet in the aftermath of the baby’s death, long-suppressed uncertainties about their relationship come roiling to the surface. A dreadful secret emerges with reverberations that reach far into their past and threaten their future.

The couple’s children, ten-year-old Biscuit and thirteen-year-old Paul, responding to the unnamed tensions around them, begin to act out in exquisitely- perhaps courageously-idiosyncratic ways. But as the four family members scatter into private, isolating grief, an unexpected visitor arrives, and they all find themselves growing more alert to the sadness and burdens of others-to the grief that is part of every human life but that also carries within it the power to draw us together.

Moving, psychologically acute, and gorgeously written, The Grief of Others asks how we balance personal autonomy with the intimacy of relationships, how we balance private decisions with the obligations of belonging to a family, and how we take measure of our own sorrows in a world rife with suffering. This novel shows how one family, by finally allowing itself to experience the shared quality of grief, is able to rekindle tenderness and hope.

My Thoughts:  Each member of the Ryrie family: Ricky, John, Paul and Biscuit, is grieving and in pain. They are all suffering from the loss of Ricky and John's infant son and Paul and Biscuit's brother. The four Ryries are also suffering from pain associated with other issues and problems in their lives which they have, primarily kept to themselves. The four Ryries are isolated by their pain and suffering, whether by choice or example, and as the book progresses, the tension in the Ryrie home builds until it feel like the family is going to explode, shattering into a million little pieces. The only reason they come together as a family at all now is the unexpected appearance of Jess, John's 23-year old daughter from a previous relationship, whom they haven't seen in 7 or 8 years. John and Ricky, in particular, invite Jess to stay for as long as she wants after she explains a little bit why she just showed up on their doorstep. I am not going to reveal Jess' secret but I will tell you that she's not completely upfront and honest with John and Ricky.

The Grief of Others is divided into sections that go alternate between 'This Year' and 'Last Year' with one section in the middle, 'Eight Years Ago'. The Ryrie Family and Jess met and spent a few weeks together for the first time eight years ago and the middle section shares how those weeks were for everyone. time together. Each section is divided into chapters with each chapter focusing on the thoughts and behavior of one of the characters. I liked this approach of Ms. Cohen's because it enabled me to get to know each member of the Ryrie family very well. By the end of the novel, I felt I knew and understood Ricky, John, Paul, and Biscuit very well and, at times, I also identified with and related to them.

Ms. Cohen created wonderfully three-dimensional, human, characters with every member of the Ryrie family. I liked John and Biscuit almost immediately and felt badly for them, almost as if they were the victims in this story and suffering the most. I thought Paul was bratty, kind of stuck-up and obnoxious and Ricky was all hard edges and sharp pointy corners with no softness or kindness in her. As I reached the three-quarter mark of the book it dawned on me that I wasn't feeling the same way about Paul and Ricky anymore. My heart was melting for Paul who I understood was really unhappy with himself. Paul's self-esteem was so low that he went through each day miserable and grouchy. I saw Ricky as a grown-up version of Paul with her hard edges a protective shield as well as an indication of how poor a view she has of herself. When I considered more thoughtfully how my view of Ricky and Paul had changed, I was amazed by Ms. Cohen's ability to affect, with quiet subtlety, how I saw the characters through her beautiful prose. Ms. Cohen also has an uncanny understanding of people and their behavior. She also has a breathtaking ability to combine words in such a way that she conveys this understanding in sentences that have stunning impact and stay with you for a long time.

This is an example of a paragraph early in The Grief of Others that I loved:

She was here on the spit because of them, because of the way her mother and father had fallen down behind themselves. She thought of it like this, like the way a book can fall down behind all the others on a shelf, and in this way its missing, only you don't know it to look at the shelf: all that you see looks orderly and complete. Her parents seemed like the books you could see: 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.

I didn't feel that I got to know Jess as well as the other characters and not as well as I would have liked. Jess is a terrific secondary character. She helps Ricky and John see what they're not understanding from an outsider's perspective. Jess, for instance, is surprised when she notices that Ricky and John don't talk about the baby who dies the year before. It's the pink elephant in the room and on everyone's mind but John and Ricky are totally silent on the subject. Still, I would have liked if Ms. Cohen had provided a more comprehensive view of Jess especially since the few chapters focusing on Jess raised questions for me that didn't get answered.

Ms. Cohen has written a rich, heart-breaking and often depressing novel but once I started reading it, I had difficulty putting this book down. This is an absorbing story with intriguing characters that reminds us how important truth is in our relationships with the people we live with and love. We also see how powerful grief is and how it can make us self-centered and forgetful of our priorities. This is a vital lesson Ricky and John in particular learn and our hope is that they hear it. The Grief of Others, finally, also shoes us the power of forgiveness and the inspiration and hope it can provide us for the future. I highly recommend this novel.

Leah Hager Cohen's website and blog, Love As A Found Object

Thank you to TLC Book Tours and Riverhead Books for an ARC copy of The Grief of Others for me to review.


  1. I keep going up and down on whether I want to read this or not. Now your review has me wanting to read it.

  2. This sounds compelling and engrossing, even if it's sad.

  3. This sounds so very well done. I am thrilled to have received a review copy last week.

    Loved your review Amy.

  4. I have read a few positive reviews for this book. Great review.

  5. This sounds fantastic! It reminds me a little of Come Sunday by Isla Morley, which I loved and was about the grief that put a couple at odds after their daughter died. Great review, as always!

  6. JENNERS: Leah Cohen's writing is totally worth experiencing but just be prepared for unhappy, troubled characters some of whom are too wrapped up in themselves for part of the book..

  7. BERMUDAONION: It is! I really had trouble putting the book down even though the angst of the characters was hard to face sometimes. But it's also not constantly bleak and depressing. I'd love to know what you think about this book!

  8. Though this book sounds like it has the capacity to be very sad, it also sounds intensely interesting as well. I am so glad that you got so invested in it. I may have to consider adding this one to my wish list. Great review!

  9. DIANE: Thank you! I'm excited that you're going to be reading the book. I hope you 'enjoy" this book. I'll be keeping watch for your review.

  10. Nise': Thank you! I'm very glad i read this book. I think it's by and large very realistic and offers some good insights on life.

  11. ANNA: Thank you! Come Monday is a book I want to read and it's on my shelf somewhere. I didn't know it was about a child's death. I'm going to read it for sure but I'll wait a little while right now!

  12. I definitely want to read this one. I am adding it to my wishlist right now!

  13. Telling the story from various points-of-view is a tricky thing - I'm glad the author pulled it off here in a way that allowed you to really connect with the characters!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  14. Great review Amy. I enjoyed this book as well. It's a pretty intense story. Glad you liked it.

  15. This one has been on my radar but I try to avoid depressing books. But your review has me thinking I would like this one, sadness and all. Great review!

  16. I think at some point, I will read this one. It sounds like the type of story I'd like, even though it's a bit on the depressing side.