by Cheryl Strayed
Houghton-Mifflin, 336 pp., $24In a year in which the distinction between memoir and fiction became dinner table conversation for those who read neither, I don't blame you for being so sick of the subject you want to throw down this paper right now. Forget all that: Here is a writer whose work reminds us why both forms exist. Cheryl Strayed's essays have the hot breath of real life, of hurts and debts and insights that hit the page still moving, slamming hard from feeling into language. Her debut novel, while addressing autobiographical themes, performs the old-fashioned magic of fiction it builds a town, fills it with people, reveals their hearts and minds, lets loose upon them the forces of death and lust and sees what happens.
The theme that the nonfiction pieces share with the novel, the subject Strayed knows so much about, is her mother's death and the wild intensity of her grief about it. "Heroin/e" and "The Love of My Life," collected in The Best American Essays 2000 and 2003 respectively, are some of the strongest personal essays I have ever read, delivering crystalline observation in an irresistibly natural, yet beautiful, voice and edging the strongest emotion with an indomitable ability to amuse.
The novel, Torch, begins with the delivery of a cancer diagnosis to Teresa Rae Wood, a mother of two in a small town in northern Minnesota. The host of a local radio interview show called Modern Pioneers, the survivor of a murderous first marriage, this vibrant character's luck has run out she is in the hospital dying within just a few pages. The plot traces the effects of her death on the three people closest to her: common-law husband Bruce; college-age daughter Claire; and teenage son Josh. These effects are about as bad as they can be. But they are portrayed so carefully and sympathetically that there is no poor decision from Claire's promiscuity to Josh's dropping out and dealing drugs to Bruce's lightning-quick remarriage that we cannot understand and forgive. The heart of this book is very sore, but it is full of love.
One of the small wonders of Strayed's fiction is the way she shows how ordinary things become magical without any hocus-pocus at all. For example, there's a Kenny G tape left by a dead woman in her bedroom that winds its way through the novel performing its semiludicrous work of healing. There are purple dots drawn with magic marker on people's heads by a New Age-y social worker, flower seeds planted on a grave by a usurper, a coffee cup that says Wyoming!: These inanimate objects are practically minor characters in the book. Similarly, Teresa's regular sign-off on the radio "Work hard. Do good. Be incredible" echoes through the page, unfolding to convey exactly what it is that is so good (and, yes, so annoying!) about a mother's love.
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