on February 21, 2006
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.
Author Cheryl Strayad (who has published short stories but, to my knowledge, NEVER a full length novel) proves her talent once again by creating an incredibly haunting tale of a family in crisis. I loved every member of this family, flaws and all.
Teresa, the matriarch of the group, is clearly the heart of this family and every bit of her life reflects her love of domestic pursuits. She even has a show which bears some resemblance to Prairie Home Companion combined with Martha Stewart, a show which promotes the creativity that can come with getting back to basics and doing things from scratch.... even in today's rushed world where such pursuits may not seem worthwhile, where wool sweaters can be bought with far less time and money than knitting them.
As Teresa battles cancer, the family is ripped apart at the seams, each one coping (or going into full blown denial) in separate ways. Claire, the daughter, who is intelligent and in college, drops out of school - while her brother takes another path. I don't want to reveal ALL the details because readers deserve to discover the special voice and style of this writer for themselves. In spite of the seemingly dark subject matter, the book is touching and heartbreaking.
I simply urge you to get a copy and discover a writer who hasn't become famous yet...but deserves more notice.
It's not often that I don't finish a book. I fell in love with Cheryl Strayed after reading Wild and Dear Sugar, so I was looking forward to consuming everything I could get my hands on. It's clear, though, that Torch isn't what made her for a reason. There is nothing wrong with the book, it just isn't very compelling. After reading the other books and being familiar with Strayed's story, I can't help but think of this as more of a therapeutic writing project for her to explore her feelings about her mother's death than a story that we are all to share. Maybe if I had never read the other books, maybe if I didn't know it was the same author, maybe then I would like it. But for now, I'm admitting defeat and putting this one down.
on July 11, 2007
The paperback version of Cheryl Strayed's complex and moving debut novel, "Torched," contains a revealing conversation with the author. In it, Strayed laments the fact that "in contemporary literary fiction...one's writing must never be sentimental, which often results in writing that lacks sentiment entirely." With extraordinary sensitivity, "Torch" explores the grief, pain and confusion that accompany the unexpected death of a family member. This is a deeply felt novel, one which features characters whose anguish is palpable, whose coping mechanisms are far from perfect and whose personalities are indelibly stamped by loss.
Fleeing an abusive marriage, Teresa Rae Woods lands in tiny Midden, Minnesota, impoverished, jobless and saddled with the responsibility of raising her two children. Resolute and resourceful, she slowly makes a life for herself, and in the process, discovers the true love of her life, an admirable carpenter, Bruce. Literally taking the advice she dispenses on her weekly radio show, Teresa words hard, does good and tries to "be incredible." Her exceptionally bright daughter, Claire and her alienated son Joshua have forged a profoundly healthy relationship with Bruce, who is everything to the two of them less being their legal father.
Then, at age thirty-eight, Teresa succumbs to cancer, and, predictably, those who love here most are staggered with the near-exquisite pain of loss. The centrifugal forces of grief splinter the family; each of the three survivors staggers under the weight of such an unsettling loss. Through various stages, Bruce, Claire and Joshua come to grips with the death of a loving partner or parent, and their journey towards understanding, acceptance and health is gripping.
The greatest strength of "Torch" is Cheryl Strayed's probing how each character summons the strength to endure. Hers is a messy novel, elegantly written and deeply felt. Her characters lose track of family history, turn into themselves and find themselves washed ashore -- shipwrecks of life. There is not a single note of falsehood in Stayed's writing; the terrible strain of mourning results in awful decisions and sundered bonds. Despite the fact that the three survivors share the most cruel of bonds -- the death of the family's anchor -- not one of them can summon the ability to reach out to the other. Their resulting loneliness increases their pain.
In part autobiographical, "Torch" took some ten years to write. Its treatment of cancer, post-death dislocation and our capacity to renew ourselves after trauma distinguish this honorable novel. Cheryl Strayed has accomplished her goal; she has crafted a work of great emotional impact, a work of art that elicits both thought and feeling.
on January 7, 2013
Here's the thing ... this book is the twin of Wild -- or, at least it's first few chapters. The death of Cheryl Strayed mother obviously and irrevocably changed her, as I imagine it would many people, I could not possibly fault her for that. But each of her books (all 3 of them) seems to play to that similar theme leaving readers wanting (maybe begging) for something different from Strayed's unique voice.
Having read Wild first, I bought this book knowing full good and well what I was getting into. Strayed and her blurb writer make no bones about it -- Torched is an almost-autobiography, more memoir then fiction. But a reader would hope for individuality in the novel, totted as fiction, nevertheless -- something, anything that would somehow set apart. That is where Torch unfortunately fails. Down to the food color/sugar/water drinks Teresa's fictional children consume in Torch that Strayed fondly recalls from her own youth in Wild, a reader is in for more then a few deja vu moments. It was during that time I was left question -- where is the individuality?
However, with that said, this book is not without legs of it's own.
Beautifully written, emotionally treading, this book teeters always on the fine line of grief and complete loss. Strayed refuses to shy away from uncomfortable moments -- drug abuse, grief-ladden sex, harrowing inner-monologs to name just a few. She does so with eloquence, which makes it all (if possible) that much harder to read.
Torch is the sort of book that deserves to stand in a light all its own ... it's just a shame it has to share so much with Wild. Both books are brilliant, just too similar.
on March 14, 2013
While this is a well wriiten story I found it very depressing. All of the characters were such a mess. I had to push myself to finish reading the book. I like the other things Cheryl has written much better (Wild and Dear Sugar).
Teresa Rae shares this phrase with the listeners of her radio show. This show passed on homely hints and was wildly popular with her listeners. Her children, Claire and Joshua, frankly found it embarrassing, but this was before their mother is diagnosed with cancer.
After the years of struggle as a single mother, the establishment of a surrogate community in a tiny rural town, and the comfort of a war marriage; cancer crashes into their lives. Bruce, her husband, Teresa and Claire fight fiercely. Joshua goes to ground in an inability to face the illness.
This is a lovely book of a real family with with real strengths and weaknesses. The story is well told. And the grief and aftermath of Teresa's illness stayed with me for weeks. If I were to choose a definitive novel on the growth of a family and the devastation of cancer, this may very well be the book. People don't always act how we would judge to be good, but this book gives us luminous evidence that they do the best "good" that they can. I am very discriminating on the portrayal of grief, and I feel this book does it very well. This book is a strong recommend.
on March 7, 2007
I confess that when I first picked up this book, I had no intention of bringing it home with me. Who wants to read about death and its terrible aftermath--loss, grief, anger? As it turns out--I did.
From the very first sentence, I was hooked. I read the second sentence, and third and fourth, until I realized that I would rather be reading it at home than standing in an aisle. As soon as I got home I opened the book and read it non-stop for two days. I devoured every single word.
What is amazing about this book is the way you are drawn into the lives of the characters. They were entirely convincing, to the point where I could not imagine they were not real. Their conversations, thoughts, actions were so natural I felt I knew them. Maybe I do know them, because all of the characters in this novel are us--in all of our emotional complexity. Whatever they feel, we feel, and have felt.
There is something positively magical about Cheryl Strayed's writing. It is beautiful, lyrical, and poetic in all the right places. But most of all, it is truthful in a way that is rare in life, let alone literature. She faces the most terrifying change of all, the loss of the most important person in one's life, with a kind of fierce honesty that is entirely free of the manipulative sentimentality that haunts personal stories. And this story is indeed personal. Strayed's own mother died suddenly when she was in her twenties. It is undoubtedly her own intimacy with grief which lends this book its force.
If I could give Torch more than five stars, I would. Strayed truly knows what it means to be human.
on April 11, 2015
Wonderful. I had read "Wild" and wanted to read another by Cheryl Strayed. I enjoyed Torch even more! Even though it was fiction, I felt the characters were all based upon her own family and experiences that she shared in "Wild". I want to thank Cheryl, for putting in words the feelings of loss, grief, guilt, and confusion those of us, young and old who have lost a beloved Mother. I was lucky enough to have had my Mom for 45 years...I got to evolve through the years of teenage self absorption and indifference to a sacred relationship to being in an adult relationship with the woman who would be my head cheerleader and best friend. I miss her everyday, but like Claire, have learned to move on with my life.
Thanks Cheryl, and where ever you are, Thanks Mom!
on February 7, 2016
Cheryl Strayed has the ability to write a character's innermost thoughts and feelings like none other. I just finished reading it coinciding with the 2-year anniversary of my mother's death. At first, I didn't think I would be able to handle it but I think it actually helped me put some things behind me and move on, just like the book characters. I was actually pleased the author brought the characters through the transition and out the other side to heal. I didn't have time to wallow in my own grief as I followed the characters. It was also interesting to read about characters who dealt with the people going through mourning and how they in turn processed moving forward.