Ok I’m going to say it…get ready for this…I did not like All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews.
Don’t stop reading (please), I will explain all.
Elfrieda wants to die, her sister Yolanda wants her to live. Their mother wants Elf to live but living isn’t a joint decision, it’s an individual one. The conflicting desires regarding Elf’s life is the main premise of the story and because of this it fell short for me. Miriam brought each character to life and I wanted to know more about each of them, not just in relation to Elf and her impending death. Although this is a fascinating premise on its own I felt she didn’t do justice to the eccentric and loveable characters she created. I wanted to see Yolanda be selfish instead of selfless when she was away from her sister, I wanted to know more about her, not about her only in relation to her sister. I wanted to know about the individuals and not the collective problem that was holding them together. Does that make sense?
I guess what I’m trying to say is that death is a difficult topic to read about and I found that I could not read more then a chapter or two at a time. Toews did an amazing job of keeping the momentum of the story going but at the end of the day death is death and the weight of the story was hard to bear.
Now let me explain why I loved the writing. I consider the writing separate from the story for two reasons. First of all, sometimes there is a really great premise to the story but the execution is not what you hoped it would be. Secondly, it’s unfair to simply say that a book was not good. I would like to think that almost every book has at least one shining moment, that moment where you reconsider your dislike and think “hey this isn’t so bad”. Here are a few (but most definitely not all) of the shining moments from All My Puny Sorrows.
“My mother tells Tina that she doesn’t like books where the protagonist is established as Sad on page one. Okay, she’s sad! We get it, we know what sad is, and then the whole book is basically a description of the million and one ways in which our protagonist is sad. Gimme a break! Get on with it!”
This quote sums up my first impressions of the book. Elf is sad, she wants to die. All I thought to myself for the first half of the novel was well get on with it! Is it heartless of me to say that I didn’t like Elf, didn’t understand her and didn’t care for her views on life?
“I learned another thing, which is that just because someone is eating the ashes of your protagonist doesn’t mean you stop telling the story.”
The rest of the novel is more along the lines of the quote above. Quirky humor mingled with death. Life is sad, people die, some who want to live and others who don’t but you get on with it anyways. If you don’t, well you’re not really living then are you?
It’s hard to describe this book and it’s even more difficult to review it. Why? Because it’s not so much a story about two sisters then it is a story about life. How to live, how to survive, how to be selfless, how to be selfish, how to be happy. Another tittle if All My Puny Sorrows hadn’t worked out could have been the How To’s of Life: Your Guide to Survival.
Toews is honest and her writing is beautiful. She makes you think about the things you hold dear and the things you don’t but should. She knows how to tear you up in the best of ways and understands people down to their bones. Her writing is different then anything I’ve ever read before. It floats effortlessly off of the page and sometimes after reading just a paragraph or a sentence I wanted to stop, not because it wasn’t good but because I wanted to let the words sink in. Her storytelling is pure magic and for this reason I will definitely be reading more of her novels.
So I guess I should rephrase my first sentence, I didn’t like the story but I loved the writing.