December 27, 2009
Torch by Cheryl Strayed
2005 Mariner Books
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)
"Work hard. Do good. Be incredible!” That’s the advice Teresa Rae Wood gives the listeners of her popular local radio show, Modern Pioneers, and she has taken it to heart in her own life. She fled a bad marriage, escaping to Midden, Minnesota (pop. 408), where she fell in love with a carpenter who became a loving stepfather to her children, Claire and Joshua. Now Claire is away at college, Joshua is laboring through his senior year of high school, and Teresa and Bruce are working to make ends meet. Despite their struggles, their love for each other binds them as a family. Then they receive the devastating news that Teresa has cancer and at thirty-eight may have less than one year to live. Those she will leave behind face something previously unimaginable -- a future without her.
In Torch, the award-winning writer Cheryl Strayed creates from one family's shattering experience a novel infused with tenderness, compassion, and beauty.
In her debut novel, Strayed's depiction of death and grief are brutally honest and painfully real. I was a bit surprised by some of the actions by Bruce, Claire and Joshua after Teresa's death, but I've learned over the years that there is no logical pattern to one's grief. It really is true that we all grieve in our own fashion and there is no right or wrong way to find passage through the pain and loss of a loved one.
This is not your typical mother/wife/best friend-dies-of-cancer-sob-story (a la Beaches or Terms of Endearment). Torch is a sad book, yet it's neither manipulative nor sentimental. The writing is beautiful and Strayed was able to hold my interest in spite of my irritation with several turn of events and poor choices made by all three main characters. I was satisfied with the final outcome, and while I probably won't re-read the novel, I can't say I wouldn't recommend it. I'm just not sure to whom.
While perusing the reviews on Amazon, I came upon a particularly lovely review. It was only after reading the post that I noticed the reviewer's name -- one of my favorite authors!
To be honest, I almost didn't read this novel because I thought it would be too sad to bear. As it turns out, I was half-right: it was too sad, it was breathtakingly sad, but I could not bear to stop reading it. On its face, the plot is simple: a husband, son, and a daughter stumble, brokenhearted, toward the moment of Teresa Rae Wood's death and then spin, brokenhearted, away from that moment, out into their separate lives and separate griefs. But there is nothing simple about Strayed's achievement, which is to render moot concepts like plot. The amazing truth is that, while I read this book, I never for a single second thought to myself, "This is a story. These are characters." I thought instead, from the first page, "This is a world. These are people." And they are people I needed to stick by through every brutal second of Teresa Rae Wood's dying and all the brutal, beautiful, dislocated, intensely intimate days and months that follow her dying. In their frank efforts to survive awful loss, Bruce, Claire, and Josh cling to some people, push others away, behave badly, nobly, selfishly, gorgeously, and they don't so much emerge from grief, as they manage to forge lives in which grief can coexist with hope and continuing. I'm so glad I read this book. (Marisa de los Santos)
Nice endorsement from an author who has also written about death and grief.
About the Author
CHERYL STRAYED's award-winning stories and essays have appeared in more than a dozen magazines, including the New York Times Magazine, Allure, Elle, and Nerve. Widely anthologized, her creative nonfiction has been selected twice for The Best American Essays, and Joyce Carol Oates singled her out for the opening piece in The Best New American Voices 2003. In its review of the anthology Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food, Publishers Weekly highlighted her tale of learning to make the perfect pudding for a tapioca-loving man. Raised in Minnesota, Strayed has worked as a political organizer for women's advocacy groups and was an outreach worker at a sexual violence center in Minneapolis. She holds an MFA from the Syracuse University Graduate Creative Writing Program.