Post-Reading: All My Puny Sorrows

“Suffering, even though it may have happened a long time ago, is something that is passed from one generation to the next to the next, like flexibility or grace or dyslexia.”
 
All My Puny Sorrows concerns itself with the seemingly inherent, unshakeable quality of suffering. The declaration above is found early in the book, and the idea resurfaces several times, inspired by the Von Reisen family’s “acres of existential sadness” and resulting suicides.
 
The narrative is entirely from Yoli’s perspective, which I had expected or rather hoped to be interrupted by that of Elf. We never enter Elf’s dark mind and she never articulates her reasons for choosing death; yet, her continuous desire and repeated attempts assure us that the story will not end in any other way. We catch her in her wild and brilliant youth – my favorite parts of the book – in the hospital, and during stints at home when she is temporarily released. In all of the book’s present moments, Elf is hardly alive; she is going, going, gone.
 
It is tempting to feel frustrated; why would anyone, much less a beautiful piano prodigy with a loving family, choose to die? It is tempting to point to the tragic impact this has on the people who desperately want her to live. The book is then a kind of litmus test for how strongly sorrow resonates with the reader. Is it something inherent, something to control, or something to fix? I felt deeply for Elf, and also for Yoli, when she finally tells her sister that she will “bow down before her suffering with compassion.”
 
A tale of suicide is brutal, but Toews weaves tragedy into a much larger family story. I was laughing aloud and got a huge kick out of Elf’s sheer genius. Elf describes a ringing phone as having “Hitchcockian implications,” as a teenager undergoes a project to “increase her visibility,” and plays the piano in a way that I never considered before. The ending is oddly unexpected, a dream-like sequence of what could have been. Regardless, the ultimate outcome is heartbreaking, and invites us to explore the dark corners of love and compassion.

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