34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
"The Grief of Others" is a multidimensional family drama. This is an ensemble piece, with no one character any more important than the other.
John and Ricky Ryrie are struggling with their own personal demons and the slow disintegration of their marriage. Caught up in their own private pain, they are not initially aware that their behavior has adversely affected their two children. Ricky has kept an important secret from her husband. She knew that their third child had a very poor diagnosis, and would not live for long after birth. She chooses not to share this information with her husband, till many months into the pregnancy. As in "Catcher in the Rye" their 11 year old daughter, Biscuit, has been unable to find closure after the death. Their 13 year old son, Paul, has turned secretive and he is bullied in school and finds he cannot count of his mother and father the way he use to. Into this household enters Jess, John's pregnant daughter from a previous relationship, who is hoping to capture the joy she felt when she came for a visit with this family many years ago. The final character is a young man, who takes Biscuit home after an incident, who is also grieving for a loved one. He finds even this damaged family is better than having none at all.
While I thought this book was well-written, I found it a little difficult to connect with all of the characters. At times, it was like I was seeing them from a distance. I saw them going through the emotions, but I did not have that visceral connection I would have liked. They say to understand is to forgive, I had some trouble understanding what made these characters tick. I would still recommend this book, especially to those readers who like their families in turmoil.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
When I picked up "The Grief of Others", I had finished another book and just needed another 10 minutes or so of reading to put me to sleep. This was in my "To Be Reviewed" pile and I was sure that I'd read a page or two and then choose something else a bit more mindless for that last bit of reading time.
Instead, I was immediately drawn to the fragile, brittle beauty of this story, of author Leah Hager Cohen's words. The premise of the book immediately inspires sadness...as a mother I cannot even fathom the thought of losing a child, and yet there is something about this book that grabbed onto me and wouldn't let me go.
"He was out of the womb and alive in the world for fifty-seven hours - a tally that put him in rare statistical company and caused in his mother an absurd sense of pride - during which time she kissed his ears and insteps and toes and palms and knuckles and lips repeatedly, a lifetime of kisses."
That paragraph is absolutely heartbreaking - but it feels so real that I was just in awe. As much as I never want to imagine the pain and grief of a mother holding her child that she knows does not have long to live, the way the author creates the images seem absolutely...right.
This is the story of a mother, and a father...and brother and sister...a family who must move on after tragedy but is unsure exactly what that "after" looks like.
There are many heartrending parts to this book. The scene where Ricky (the baby's mother) learns of her child's birth defect..."The radiologist there in the obstetric ultrasound suite explained that the condition was `incompatible with life', a phrase that took Ricky several seconds to understand, but which then struck her not as sneakily euphemistic but as surprisingly elegant and apt, free of judgment." This is a woman, who with her third child, heads to what should be a routine ultrasound thinking she will be coming home with a picture to hang on the fridge and admire, thinking this will be the first special picture of the newest member of their family ("The moment, that moment, of seeing the little profile!")...and who is instead dealt a devastating blow.
The grief and hurt and repressed feelings pile up in the members of the family...with few outlets as they try to pretend everything is all right after the death of the baby. Only Ricky was able to hold him, in fact, she was unable to let go. "...once he'd left her arms the force of her grief gouged her. She'd had no inkling it would be like this: not simply lonely-making, but corrosive. She was filled with hatred. Some of it for herself."
Something about that word, corrosive, stayed with me. Intense feelings can consume us - eat away at our soul. This woman, this family has a struggle to try and avoid that future, try and repair that which is eating away at them.
But along with their grief - there is beauty. There is love, and the memories of the joy and happiness that they once shared - the picture perfect moments that they need to hold on to through the darkest of times.
"...Ricky realizes that there have been a few stellar days, or parts of days: moments that seemed instantly to become emblazoned in her mind as postcards she will look back on. Scavenging for late season blueberries, and Biscuit turning out to be the best seeker of them all. Playing cards all day, the day it rained without stopping, and eating popcorn straight from the metal pot. Hiking on the blazed trails and logging roads that suddenly opened up and as suddenly stopped, like ghost boulevards in the old forest; the sun filtering down as if in slow motion through the crown cover, the light somehow altered, distilled, as though it had been sent from a long time ago."
The book was about people so fragile, so carefully patched together after disaster that it seemed as if too strong a breath might scatter the pieces. It is about people trying as best they can to hold on to the life they knew in the face of a tragedy they never expected. It is a lovely, sad, beautiful and emotional story of people. Of the frailty of human beings and the incredible strength of human love.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
The Grief of Others reminds me of an elegant package, with layers and layers of exquisite paper. Yet when everything is opened, what remains is a mystery box, something that entices and at the same time, disappoints.
The writing is, indeed, beautiful. The story opens with Ricky Ryrie in a hospital bed, holding her newborn son who is fated to die within the next few hours. "The whorls of his ears were as marvelously convoluted as any Echer drawing, the symmetry precise, the lobs little as teardrops, soft as peaches," Ms. Cohen writes.
The aftermath of the newborns death will cause a vortex of emotions in each member of the family: Ricky, her husband John, their two children Paul and Biscuit, and John's grown daughter from a former dalliance, Jess. The children begin to act out in their own ways; Biscuit becomes obsessed with farewell rituals, Paul overeats and rails against his classmates' assessment of him. And Jess reflects, "What she remembers of the Ryries, the memory she cherished above all of her time with them on that single summer holiday eight years ago, was how shiny she had appeared in their eyes, how good and honorable and clean." She yearns for that feeling of being prized, at a time when the Ryries have nothing left to give.
All of this centers around accepting that Ricky, who finds out in her fifth month that she is pregnant with an anencephalic child - a child that is missing the major portion of his brain and also the top of his skull and scalp - chooses to go forward with her pregnancy, not telling anyone, even John, and pulling off a pretense that everything is fine for the next four months. Were she a religious person - or perhaps a woman who had striven long and hard to bear a child - one could understand her decision. She is told that the vast majority of women do not go through with the pregnancy). But the reader is given little insight into Ricky and why it is so important for her to carry this baby to term, knowing the heartache ahead, risking her marriage. When it comes, it's too little, too late.
I felt somewhat distanced from these characters, wanting to understand and relate to them more than I did. Ms. Cohen does a masterful job at portraying a family falling apart, isolated by grief, isolated from each other. If only the pivotal plot point had been developed a little more. Not quite 4 stars.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2011
Leah Hager Cohen is one of my favorite writers for a lot of reasons, not least of which is her ability to see, hear, and feel--and then share with readers her remarkable insights. The first pages of this novel are a masterpiece, a portrayal of grief exquisitely rendered. The rest of the book fulfills the promise of those pages. But this is not just a novel about grief; it's also about the many facets of love and family and life on earth. It often makes you smile, or laugh out loud, or creates in you some sort of recognition that makes you want to shout "Yes! That's just how it is!" I loved every character, even--and perhaps especially-- when they were behaving badly. This is Cohen's best book yet, and now that I've finished it, I'm eagerly awaiting her next work.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 11, 2012
The story should have been much more compelling, but it suffers from weak characters and is poorly told.
The first chapter was beautiful and heartbreaking. The rest of the book was just dull.
Characters are shallow, clueless and frustrating: The parents don't notice their son has lost most of his friends? They can't manage a 10 year old cutting school and almost burning the house down? Why is the mother surprised that her husband doesn't trust her when she's cheated twice and hid knowledge of the condition of their baby for months? Why does nobody seem concerned that a pregnant 23 year old has no plans and no ability to support herself?
The young man with the dog is by far the most sympathetic character, but his placement in the story seemed random.
Also, at 371 pages, the book is too long. About half way through, I started skipping pages, and barely finished the book.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2011
The Ryrie family has suffered the tragic loss of a baby just a few days after his birth. Mother and father Ricky and John are trying to desperately maintain normalcy in their family, despite the fact that their marriage is falling apart and neither one of them has figured out how to deal with their grief. Their older child, thirteen-year-old Paul, is an outcast at his school and dealing with his own grief in some interesting ways. Their younger daughter, Biscuit, is confused about why her baby brother never came home from the hospital and begins acting out to display her confusion and anger. When an unexpected family member arrives at their front door, the Ryrie family must come together and try to understand what one another is feeling, as their family dynamic is unraveling rather quickly.
The Grief of Others is a beautifully written novel about one family's inability to heal from a devastating loss. Each member of the family is dealing with this loss in their own way; some more healthy and productive than others. The other big issue in the novel is that Ricky kept a huge secret from John throughout her pregnancy, a secret which later comes back to haunt her and one which causes John to look at her completely differently after he finds out.
The characters in this novel are incredibly realistic, almost depressingly so. They are each so deep into their grief that they cannot see what the rest of their family members are dealing with. This is particularly troubling for John and Ricky, as they have two small kids who don't totally understand what happened to their baby brother. The fact that John and Ricky couldn't help their children grieve, couldn't even support them emotionally, absolutely broke my heart. This actually made it difficult for me to connect to these characters, as I was so frustrated by their actions. Leah Hagar Cohen did such an excellent job portraying their emotions and making them believable to me, but I still could not connect to either of them because they just made such poor choices when it came to supporting their children emotionally.
As I briefly mentioned, the writing in The Grief of Others is just gorgeous. Leah Hagar Cohen completely draws the reader in with her prose, and I was captivated by this sad story from the moment I turned the first page. Although I had a difficult time with some of the characters, I will say that she effectively got into each of their heads and illustrated their emotional journeys, even the children. By the end of the novel, I felt that I knew this family intimately and although I didn't love all of them, I certainly felt their pain.
The Grief of Others is a novel that is difficult to forget. The writing is wonderful and although I had a difficult time with some of the characters, ultimately they were incredibly realistic and their grief was palpable. I can definitely recommend this novel.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
This review comes from the uncorrected proof for limited distribution of "The Grief of Others". The book addresses the reactions to loss and the grief that ensues....the real loss of two babies and a father through death, the emotional withdrawal of parental involvement from their children, the destruction of the underpinning of love within a marriage, the loss of family relationships, the loss of childhood and maybe, most of all, the loss of who each character thought they were.
The author has an exquisite way of describing the characters and the scenes in which they appear as in this description found on the first page, "His lips: how barely pink they were, the pink of the rim of the sky at winter dusk. And in their curl-in the way the upper lip rose to peaks and dipped down again, like a bobbing valentine; and in the way the lower bowed out, luxuriant, lush, as if sated already from a lifetime of pleasure - how improbably expressive were his lips." I could so easily see the picture the author was painting of the main character's newborn baby. I became lost in the description, could almost see those little lips quiver, hear the little sounds newborns make and smell the sweet baby powder scent of this beautiful little baby. I was stuck in the description that the author so expertly wove. I wanted to know about the baby's eyes and nose and every part of this tiny human. I lost total interest as to the story the author was trying to tell. When the descriptions I was seeking did not appear, I had to jerk myself back to the task at hand.....reading and reviewing the book. These descriptions occur very frequently throughout the book. While they are wonderfully done and can totally engage one in the here and now of that particular person, object, emotion, or event I thought that often they interrupted the flow of the book's story.
The book looks at many different types of loss and takes the reader through the varied steps of grieving a loss. It is easy to identify with the reactions of each of the characters. It also will have you continually asking yourself, what would I have done in this situation or why, oh why, are they addressing the situation that way. It is not an easy book to read because of the issues addressed....death of a child, carrying a baby who will most certainly die from deformities, miscarriage, not trusting your significant other, have a child out of wedlock, biological children and parents trying to find a way to relate, the self doubting of oneself, discovering you are not who you thought you were and neither are those around you and constant seeking to make life work for you. Yet, if the reader has ever personally addressed any of these issues and successfully survived this book could be an affirmation of your struggle.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2011
This book was a disappointment. The first chapter was beautiful and made me cry and the second chapter was breathtaking, but the rest of the book was almost as dull as dishwater. The author seems to have come from the "Tell, don't show" school of writing. As for the characters, they are passive and self-centered. Also, for people who are constantly thinking about this or that, they seem awfully dense. For example, one of the main characters cheats on her husband (twice) and then tells him a whopping lie and then refuses to have sex with him. And yet she is surprised that he appears not to be interested in staying with her? Duh.
Another character, a young woman, is pregnant and planning to keep the baby. After she runs away from home, she moves in with the main characters and proceeds to eat their food, call her mother, and take long walks. No one in the book seems to think that, if this young woman is going to keep the baby, she will need to grow up, get a job, and figure out how she is going to survive. I'm not saying SHE should think it, necessarily. But isn't it strange that no one else does? Instead, everyone acts like her behavior is acceptable. What kind of fantasyland is this?
Speaking of fantasyland, I hate it when the lifestyle of the characters does not match up with their probable income. The woman who supposedly makes all of the money doesn't work hard enough to make her salary believable. The man's job in the arts is laughably unreal. Their livelihoods feel like contrivances and not an essential part of their lives.
On the subject of the arts, let me say that describing works of art, especially ones that are supposed to be good, in books must be remarkably difficult, given how rarely it is done. This book gives us yet another example of it not being done well. The stuff the author describes here doesn't seem to be nearly as fabulous as the characters seem to think it is. The Agony and The Ecstasy nails this sort of thing. The Grief of Others doesn't even tap it lightly.
In addition, the couple who take the young woman in don't seem to give a lick of thought to the fact that this will probably be terrible for their own children, who are already showing signs of suffering from neglect. There is no conflict here, none at all, but there should be. And yet we are supposed to believe that these parents love their children and are concerned about their well-being? Not. They are selfish and self-centered and not even in an interesting way.
I won't say anything about the ending of the story except that it just seems to dribble away. This book doesn't even deliver decent denouement. And please don't think I gave anything away in describing the story in this review, because everything that I wrote about is given up front and then repeated ad nauseum throughout the story.
My conclusion is that this story is strong in the beginning, falls apart very quickly and ends weakly. The jacket of my copy of the book describes it as being "beautifully written" and maybe it is, but what the jacket neglects to say is that the story itself is uninteresting and it is also poorly told. This book is, as described in the title of this review, one big fat disappointment. Don't waste your money.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
I typically don't do well with books that involve the death of children or animals. But the demise of the Ryrie family baby - an event that serves as prologue and organizing theme - is recounted in such a dispassionate manner that I was unable to engage. The emphasis on descriptive metaphors is particularly off-putting, sort of like looking at a painting and wondering at the brand of brush used, or listening to music and envisioning only notes on a page. Analytical and disconnected.
The rest of the book kept me at arms-length. It was hard to understand, much less identify with, any of Ryrie family members, who seemed to be defined in terms of key attributes. But labels seem artificially and sometimes arbitrarily applied and give us little insight into the underlying emotions that are theoretically driving individual behavior. We see the icing but get very few glimpses of the cake.
Ricky chooses not to terminate a pregnancy that she knew would result in a baby that could not survive. We know this from the beginning of the book. Although the book goes to great lengths to explain why she kept this bit of information from her husband, it does not touch upon the more interesting question of why Ricky made the choice she did. What need did it serve, what flaw or strength did it reflect? This question troubled me throughout the book, and I kept waiting for it to be adequately addressed, but Ricky does not let the reader get that close.
The book skips around in time, and sometimes repeats a number of scenes from the perspectives of different characters. This can be a provocative and revealing technique, but here it adds little texture to the overall experience. About ¾ of the way through, the narrative travels back eight years to show us, in real time, a family vacation that's been alluded to throughout the book. What should be a climactic and revelatory scene comes off flat and dull, and my main reaction was annoyance.
I think Cohen realized that her core story lacked excitement, and therefore added a few peripheral but intriguing characters. But because they decorate the narrative rather than adding depth to the story (or helping us understand the main characters) their inclusion is perplexing.
One of the final chapters involves yet another loss and an accompanying medical procedure. That chapter was the only one in the book that I found compelling. After finishing the book and reading Cohen's "Grief as Inspiration" essay that describes a similar episode in her own life, I realized why she was able to infuse that chapter with the emotion that the rest of the book lacked.
Apart from some platitudinous and over-reaching metaphors, Cohen is a decent writer, and the book is an easy read. But, like the baby who lived only 57 hours, her book is most notable for its unrealized potential.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
What is grief? It has no physical properties, but it fills a room, a life, many lives, and creates pain. It's bigger than a boulder, but is amorphous. You can't domesticate or quarantine grief, but it can isolate, alienate, afflict. The sun rises and sets, our shadows shorten and lengthen, but grief reaches into darkness and obscures the light. Its stride is long and its span is spacious, but it has no measure. Grief is timeless, but time heals, according to the maxim.
This novel is about a family whose grief is palpable in every room, in every sigh, but they aren't discussing their shared mourning. Its presence is living proof, and it is kindling the death of love and connection. Paradoxically, this loss of connection is so perceptible that they are all hung together in an imperceptible noose, connected in sorrow. Hope is a tenuous flame fluttering in a precarious wind.
The Ryries of upper state NY each have a story that funnels into the larger story of their family life. John entertained the gypsy life of theatric design, and when his wife, Ricky, the financial engineer, put her foot down, he got a steady job at a local community college. Ricky earns a corporate paycheck, but is resentful of John's more laid back and essentially fun job. Truly, the resentments build both ways, and when tragedy strikes, they fail to lean on each other in a healing manner. Damaging secrets come out later, and lead to sequestered grieving. On top of all that, a visitor comes--a blast from the past, someone who is part of the presence of everything.
John and Ricky's daughter, Biscuit (Elizabeth), is a sixth-grader, hoarding a book from the library on the ritual burying and funereal practices of worldwide cultures. Her brother, Paul, is thirteen and in a very awkward phase, subject to relentless school bullying. Enter Gordie and his dog, Ebie, who meet Biscuit down by the river. Biscuit is doing who-knows-what with ashes and bone and an egg, and gets pushed in the water by Ebie. The drying off process leads to Gordie and Ebie meeting the whole Ryrie family and their visitor. The multivalent chorus of the theme and story whorls around all these characters, and their private anguishes and public displays of untidy and unresolved grief keep the reader engaged until the suspenseful resolve.
Cohen has a knack for the "mot juste," Flaubert's term for the exact right word. She is a magician with words, metaphors, and imagery. The sentences and passages are delicate and edgy, muscular and creamy. Every felicitous line is meaningful and enchanting. Moreover, her tone and mood is suggestive and tender without sentimentality; you feel with the characters and move with the story.
The drawback is within the primary thread of the set-up. Ricky makes a decision, setting up the initial complexity of her tragedy, that is impossibly difficult to swallow, and it becomes a thorn in the story's authenticity. Although the author braids it into a beautiful circle, and creates a provocative sense of discovery of human nature--a discovery that is genuine and believable--the logistics of penning this structure in order to lead to this enlightenment requires a quantum leap of disbelief suspension.
However, this is a book I would recommend to literature lovers who enjoy ripe, eloquent domestic dramas. Cohen's impressive curvature of prose and fluent, credible understanding of grief and all its counterintuitive responses and follicular journey, carry the reader into places beyond the bend. THE GRIEF OF OTHERS ultimately illuminates the grace of self and unity with being and beings.