All My Puny Sorrows
”She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” That’s how Yoli describes her relationship with her sister, Elf, in this wrenchingly honest, darkly funny novel. A concert pianist with everything to live for — a doting husband, an illustrious job, a close-knit family — Elf wants to commit suicide, while Yoli, struggling with her career and a divorce, will do anything to keep her sister alive. The saddest thing about this book is that we already know how it ends: It was inspired by the true story of Miriam Toews and her sister, Marjorie, who ended her life in 2010 by jumping in front of a train, 12 years after their father killed himself the same way. (Toews wrote about his suicide in the award-winning memoir Swing Low: A Life.) But somehow, even as Toews works toward an inevitable conclusion, the pacing is gripping, leaving you — like Yoli — desperate to predict what Elf will do next, and helpless to stop it.
Told in Yoli’s raw voice, which swings from sympathy to rage to wry humor, All My Puny Sorrows isn’t just another volume in the sad-novel genre. In one scene, Yoli’s mother even rants about novels where ”the whole book is basically a description of the million and one ways in which the protagonist is sad.” Sorrows may be a fierce dissection of loss, but it’s also an unflinching look at family and failure and self-interest and how great literature can help shape your view of these things. (The title comes from a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem about losing his sister; Elf and Yoli often discuss favorite poets.) This book certainly does that too. Early on, Elf tells Yoli how to play the piano. You must first establish tenderness, she says. Then the excitement will build, as you put ”the violence and agony of life into every note” until you must make an important decision: Either return to tenderness or ”continue on with the truth, the violence, the pain, the tragedy, to the very end.” It’s an apt description of how Toews has constructed this novel, too, with one exception: In the end, she chooses tragedy. But the tenderness was there all along. A
”…the day before my father killed himself he took my hand in his and said Yoli, it feels to me as though the lights are going out.”