All My Puny Sorrows is a terrific book that I read at the wrong time. It is a book that asks if deep sorrow can run in families. It is also a book about autonomy, about whether you should be free to choose your own outcomes. Elf and Yoli are adult sisters who grew up in a Canadian Mennonite family, with deep community control. In childhood, Elf was always cracking away at tradition by being outspoken, especially through her music. As Elf becomes more accomplished, the more she wants to die. She attempts suicide again and again, and Yoli grapples with whether she should be protecting her sister from herself or helping her fulfill her wishes.
This was not the book for me to read over the holidays, because I found it unendingly sad. It also had very little plot – the reader is waiting in the hospital with Yoli over a series of seemingly endless days.
However, it is also an endlessly beautiful story that asks all sorts of questions about the true nature of love. The writing is exquisite, with tiny (but not puny) bursts of wit. I will be quickly heading to this author’s backlist to find titles to read when I am looking for something heartbreaking and quiet.
Some reviewers have mentioned the political dimensions of this story (i.e. the right to die), but I wasn’t as focused on Elf’s desire to die as I was on Yoli’s struggle with the idea of compassion. Still, this book did make me wonder about how suicide is portrayed in popular fiction and found a terribly named list on Goodreads called “Popular Suicide Books.” On the list is Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die, which my book club read in October (you can find my thoughts about that novel here). Coelho’s book (philosophy?) about living and dying would make for an interesting contrast to Toews’ story. Both consider the idea of freedom of expression and community constraints. Both are set in a hospital. But, ultimately, I connect so much more with Toews’ novel, as its story is located in a web of family relationships. Coelho’s book makes me think, but Toews’ book makes me thinks AND feel.
You can find an interesting article about the autobiographical components of All My Puny Sorrows here.