Book review: “The Grief of Others,” by Leah Hager Cohen

October 7, 2011

The family in Leah Hager Cohen’s powerful fourth novel, “The Grief of Others,” is an unhappy one, and every member is unhappy in his or her own way.

Ricky, the mother, envisions crashing through the guardrail and driving off the Tappan Zee Bridge on her way home each night from her job as a financial engineer. Thirteen-year-old Paul overeats and is being bullied at school, but at least he still goes, unlike his 10-year-old sister, Biscuit, whose truancy distresses her parents, even though they seem unable to muster the energy to do anything about it. Then there’s John, the father, who loves his work designing theater sets at a community college — except for the knowledge “looming over him at all times” that it traps his wife in a high-paying job she hates.

The Ryries were happy once, but they were shattered when the family’s third child died of a rare condition a mere 57 hours after his birth. Cohen’s novel begins with a few pages devoted to the baby’s brief existence, lived entirely within the circle of Ricky’s arms, and the scenes she creates are quietly devastating. Things grow worse when John discovers that Ricky has been keeping a secret about the pregnancy from him, putting the survival of their marriage in jeopardy too.

If it all seems overly depressing, consider that even as her characters spiral closer to self-destruction, Cohen creates gorgeous, uncommon descriptions that sound like grace notes on her pages. She writes of a pregnant woman enjoying a “sleep as viscid and nullifying as tar.” When Biscuit goes outside, “her lungs were sharp with the sweet-onion sting of early April”; another time, someone asks a question that comes out “shy, thimble sized.”

As the Ryries wade through the grief that isolates them from one another, two more characters enter the book and take turns narrating chapters: a young woman named Jess, whom John fathered when he was in college, and a 19-year-old named Gordie, who meets the Ryries after his dog accidentally knocks Biscuit into the Hudson River. Gordie’s father is in the late stages of lung cancer — no one in this book is spared proximity to death — and Cohen’s description of him reveals her gift of characterization: A widower, he has worked hard to cover up his bitterness over his wife’s death when Gordie was a baby. “To his surprise, discipline became habit: his sweet ways built up, over the years, around the old mordant kernel, like peach flesh around its stone of cyanide. So that Gordie not only grew up with a dad who displayed no sign of having been damaged from that early loss, but might in turn believe in the possibility of recovering from future losses; might see that sweetness could follow upon suffering.”

Insights like these help balance the darkness of the novel, as does a section toward the end of the book when Cohen reaches back to illuminate a golden time for the Ryries and Jess: a two-week vacation that was filled with late-night swims, fresh corn on the cob, card games and canoe trips. In a sense, everyone in the family is striving to return to that idyllic moment, even as they accumulate more secrets that push them apart.

There are one or two minor points that strain credulity: Could Paul’s problems with the bullies at school really be so easily wrapped up? And a few too many poetic phrases and lush flashbacks in the first half of the novel stall the action when it’s straining to take off. But in the second half, the pace picks up, and the story lines reach a wonderful crescendo.

There’s pain in reading this book, but there’s another thread running through it, too, gleaming with all the vibrancy of Cohen’s prose: hope.

Pekkanen is the author of “Skipping a Beat” and “The Opposite of Me.”

THE GRIEF OF OTHERS

By Leah Hager Cohen

Riverhead. 374 pp. $26.95

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