“Nothing happens in my life. Nothing has to happen, she said, for it to be life.”
By all rights, All My Puny Sorrows should be a bleak, miserable read. Thanks to Toews, it isn’t. This book made me laugh out loud many times. That hasn’t happened in a great long while–I can’t even remember the last book that made me literally laugh out loud. I guess you have to laugh through your tears sometimes.
“I too a sister had, an only Sister–
She lov’d me dearly, and I doted on her!
To her I poured forth all my puny sorrows”
When she was a teenager, Yoli’s older sister Elf took on ‘All My Puny Sorrows’ as her personal brand. Decades later, Yoli uncovers the source of the term in the passage above (within a poem by Coleridge). It’s a passage that sums up the relationship between Yoli and Elf, as well as the difficult place Yoli has found herself.
Elf has always been a brilliant girl with an anarchic disregard for rules or structure. She has gained worldwide fame as a concert pianist but nothing has been able to cure the darkness she feels within herself. Following a suicide attempt, Elf finds herself in the psychiatric ward of a hospital under constant watch. But once Elf has made up her mind she will not change it, so she turns to her sister–who has always been there for her–for help. She wants Yoli to help her die. Obviously, Yoli balks at the very notion, but as her sister continues to not get better she must ask herself how you help a loved one who truly wants to die.
Such a bleak premise may understandably scare many readers away, but those who flee are missing out on one of the most darkly funny meditations on love, family, sisterhood, and the dual natures of life and death that has ever been put to the page. And Toews knows of what she writes: her own sister was a celebrated pianist who cut her life short.
There are far too many quotes I could list here to prove what an incredible work this book is. Suffice to say that if you pick it up, bring a pen with you to note them so you can savor them for years to come. And if you do venture into All My Puny Sorrows, odds are you’ll be captivated from the very beginning. I find the first six pages in particular to be gorgeous. This book now stands with The Virgin Suicides among my favorite openings for a novel ever.
All My Puny Sorrows is a devastating work (not to mention devastatingly funny), and a beautiful ode to sisterhood. I don’t think this book will be leaving me for a long time. It will haunt me for many years in the best possible way.