“Anyway, you’re right about the first paragraph. I want someone to project it on the front of my house in giant letters made of light and shadows. And if they flickered a bit, that would be the best. And of course they’d disappear in the sunshine because everything does. And that would be perfect.”
All My Puny Sorrows, p. 313
By Miriam Toews
“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.
Having been on a classics streak for quite some time, I knew that I wanted to return to the 21st century for my next read, though I had no idea who, what, or where. I spent the first Saturday of May in Golden Gate Park, and within the first hour I had ventured outside its perimeter on the hunt for coffee. After successful completion, I breezed past and then turned back around into Green Apple Books, encountered the “Staff Picks” shelf, and was startled by this note:
In case you have trouble catching every word, this is the promise: “On average, I recommend this book to someone at least once a day. It is hands-down one of my favorite books of 2014 (and maybe in my life). I am offering as close to a money-back guarantee as you can get without actually using currency…Please, do yourself a favor and read All My Puny Sorrows.”
I do not remember the last time I read such an effusive book review, and I was quickly made vulnerable to its influence, as anything that anyone considers their favorite intrigues me (especially books and songs). I think of it as a shortcut education, or at least enrichment, to expose myself to something that someone else has already studied and determined to be exceptional. You learn a lot about someone by learning their favorites, and if you accumulate enough of that information from enough individuals, you start to learn a lot about people in general.
In Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows, Elfreida and Yolandi Von Reisen are sisters who mean the world to each other but also suffer the ultimate conflicting interest: Elfreida wants to kill herself and Yolandi wants her to live. I am only 50 pages into the book, but those pages have jumped back and forth between their childhood growing up in a Mennonite household and their adulthood, Elfreida as a world renowned pianist and Yolandi as a divorced mother of two. Elfrida, especially in childhood, is mesmerizing. She is the kind of talented, independent, brilliant, and miserable character that I love.
There is a scene early in the book when the elders of the Mennonite community visit the Von Reisen home to reprimand them for one thing or another. Elfreida goes into the spare bedroom next to the front door and begins to play the piano, which is not allowed in the community. She plays her obsession, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Minor, Opus 23, a piece she praises for “its total respect for the importance of the chaotic ramblings of an interior monologue” (p. 18). I immediately searched for the piece online and listened to it as I continued to read. I am very eager to dive further into this book, and to discover whether someone else’s favorite will also become mine.