All My Puny Sorrows

By Miriam Toews

(McSweeney’s, $24, 330 pages)

Who is this author?

Miriam Toews (her surname is pronounced “taves”), a Canadian author from a Mennonite family,  has published six novels: Summer of My Amazing Luck, A Boy of Good Breeding, A Complicated Kindness, The Flying Troutmans, Irma Voth and All My Puny Sorrows,  and the nonfiction book, Swing Low: A Life, a touching memoir about her father’s depression and suicide.  All My Puny Sorrows also focuses on suicide, and was inspired by thesel-inflicted  death of the author’s sister. Toews has won many Canadian literary prizes for her work.

What is this book about?

Elfrieda (known as Elf) and Yolandi (known as Yoli) Von Reisen are sisters who were raised in a strict and religious Mennonite community. Elf is an internationally praised pianist who lives a glamorous, wealthy life and has a good marriage, but she wants out: she wants to die. Yoli, a not very successful writer, is divorced, has no money and has two children who are rushing into adulthood, but she has a mission: to keep her beloved sister from ending her life. As the story progresses, Yoli comes to understand her sister’s agony and grapples with the complex issues of assisted suicide.

Why you’ll like it:

A bill to legalize assisted suicide is being debated in Connecticut and elsewhere, as the population ages and people increasingly seek to control their manner of death. This book goes right to the heart of this profoundly complex issue, but though the story is sad, Toews writes with skill and provocative humor that invites readers to examine how they really feel about this difficult choice.

Here is what Toews told the website about her philosophical journey and her love of writing:

“The relationship between Yolandi and Elfrieda is certainly taken from my own life, my relationship with my sister.

“My sister attempted and finally succeeded in killing herself. There are parts of the book that are more fictional than others, it’s certainly fiction, but the major central relationship is informed by my life, by reality.”

“. . . .In writing fiction I can be free,” Toews explains. “I can use my life. The raw material is my experiences. (But in fictionalizing it,) I can set the tone, the voice, the pace. I can embellish. I can exaggerate. I can create. There’s just more freedom. It’s the direction I go in when I write. It’s what I do.”

Toews says she isn’t so much making the argument for assisted suicide, as she is “presenting certain questions to hopefully allow readers to think about things that maybe we as a society haven’t given much thought to.”

“. . .  “going back to my own experience and seeing my sister in such agony, and thinking of her having to die violently and alone; that there were no other options for her made me think, made me really think of the idea of assisted suicide, of providing a peaceful, good death to people who have decided for themselves that’s what they want and that’s what they need to get rid of the pain.

“. . . Writing helps me to create order out of chaos, and make sense of things. It helps me to understand what I’ve experienced, what I’ve felt and seen, so it becomes a little easier to handle.

“On the other hand, I don’t want it to be just a cathartic experience, an outpouring of grief or whatever it is. I want it to be artful, solid narrative that other people can enjoy and relate to.”

What others are saying:

In The New York Times Book Review, novelist Curtis Sittenfeld writes: “…spending time in the company of Yoli, a 40-something woman alternately busy with the work of caring for various family members and screwing up her own life, was the main reason I loved the book… The flashbacks to Yoli and Elf’s childhood in a rural Mennonite community are vivid and energetic. In both the past and present, Toews…perfectly captures the casual manner in which close-knit sisters enjoy and irritate each other. The dialogue is realistic and funny, and somehow, almost magically, Toews gets away with having her characters discuss things like books and art and the meaning of life without seeming pretentious or precious; they’re simply smart, decent and confused…All My Puny Sorrows is unsettling, because how can a novel about suicide not be? But its intelligence, its honesty and, above all, its compassion provide a kind of existential balm—a comfort not unlike the sort you might find by opening a bottle of wine and having a long conversation with…a true friend.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Elfrieda’s a concert pianist. When we were kids she would occasionally let me be her page-tuner for the fast pieces that she hadn’t memorized.” This sentence, in the voice of the younger Yolandi, crystallizes the dynamic of the two sisters in Toews’s (Summer of My Amazing Luck) latest novel. While Elfrieda is the genius and the perfectionist, it is the practical, capable Yolandi on whom she depends. Over the course of this tender and bittersweet novel, Elf tours the world while Yoli stays put, has two kids with two different men but stays with neither of the fathers. It is Elf’s debilitating depression and suicidal tendencies that keep the two urgently close as Yoli, for decades, does everything she can to help Elf ward off her psychological problems. The prose throughout the book is lively and original and moves along at a steady clip. Though there are some underdeveloped aspects (their upbringing in a Mennonite household, Yoli’s experience of motherhood), the novel is a triumph in its depiction of the love the sisters share, as Yoli tries, just as when she was a page turner, to stay a few beats ahead. “

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Sisters should always want what is best for each other, but what if what one sister really wants is to end her life? This is the dilemma Yoli faces when her ethereal sister, Elf, attempts suicide. The beautiful Elf is a world-renowned pianist who’s in a loving relationship and about to start an international tour, but having it all doesn’t matter to her when she is drowning in despair. Yoli, as she rightfully points out, is the one struggling; she’s twice divorced, with children by two different fathers, and after having achieved some success as a YA series author (though she has nothing like Elf’s gifts), her career has stalled. But though she and Elf are close—the bond they forged while growing up in a conservative Mennonite town in Canada is central to the narrative—depression is hard to understand from the outside. VERDICT Despite the topic, this is not a dark novel. In fact, its gloom comes in the form of dark humor, and Toews does a wonderful job with her characters, none of whom are perfect, which makes them all the more real. It requires a talented author to take a serious subject and write such an engaging, enjoyable work.

And in its starred review, Kirkus says: “A Canadian writer visits her older sister, a concert pianist who’s just attempted suicide, in this masterful, original investigation into love, loss and survival. “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other,” Yolandi Von Riesen says of her sister, Elfrieda. Toews moves between Winnipeg, Toronto, and a small town founded by Mennonite immigrants who survived Bolshevik massacres, where the intellectual, free-spirited Von Riesen family doesn’t share the elders’ disapproval of “overt symbols of hope and individual signature pieces.” Yoli looks back over time, realizing that the sisters’ bond is strengthened by their painful memories. The girls’ father baffles neighbors by supporting Elf’s creative passions and campaigning to run a library. His suicide and absence from their adulthood make him even more important to his daughters as their paths diverge. Elf travels around Europe, emptying herself into Rachmaninoff performances; Yoli writes books about a rodeo heroine, feeling aimless and failed. Elf’s husband appreciates her singular sensitivity as a performer, but this capacity for vulnerability dangerously underpins her many breakdowns and longstanding depression. Yoli’s men are transient, leaving her with two children. Toews conveys family cycles of crisis and intermittent calm through recurring events and behaviors: Elf and her father both suffer from depression; Yoli and her mother face tragedy with wry humor and absurdist behavior; and two sisters experience parallel losses. Crisp chapter endings, like staccato musical notes, anchor the plot’s pacing. Elf’s determination to end her suffering by dying takes the form of a drumbeat of requests for Yoli to help her commit suicide. Readers yearn for more time with this complex, radiant woman who fiercely loves her family but cannot love herself. “Sadness is what holds our bones in place,” Yoli thinks. Toews deepens our understanding of the pain found in Coleridge’s poetry, which is the source of the book’s title.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has this book.

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