Grief 101

h1 May 2nd, 2007 by jules

Why that post title? Because, as Publishers Weekly put it, Margo Rabb’s first YA novel, Cures for Heartbreak (Random House; February 2007), “gives readers a keenly insightful study of grief.” And — as you might guess about a book that, at its core, revolves around bereavement — it’s “endlessly poignant” (in the words of Michael Chabon), but then, throughout the novel, Rabb will turn right around and counter the desolation and poignancy with moments of truly funny dark humor. And not a single note of the novel strikes a false note, so all the sadness, all the grief, and all the humor is very real.

This absorbing character study of a novel is centered on Mia, a freshman at the Bronx High School of Science. Her mother dies quite suddenly — twelve days after diagnosis — of cancer (melanoma). She and her sister, Alex, and her father find themselves suddenly having to prepare for a funeral, and Mia, in particular, has difficulty with the realization that she doesn’t exactly know how to go about grieving (her sometimes antagonistic relationship with her older sister doesn’t help the tension in their home). Rabb opens the novel with the very visit to the funeral director and then backtracks a bit to her mother telling them her diagnosis, not knowing that was the “last normal conversation I’d have with my mother.” Mia’s exploration of her feelings immediately after the death is bumbling, painful, and haunting, as she longs to see her mother again. Much to her dismay, it’s also awkward at times, though she’s always extremely candid with herself and the reader:

When I used to watch after-school specials I’d wanted to be that girl — the one the special was about, the girl with some terrible disease or the sufferer of some noble catastrophe. Pitied and loved. Of course in real life the pity, or whatever it was, was nothing like the way it seemed on the show; it resulted not in reverence but in something more like humiliation. I was ashamed of my family for having such bad luck. Who dies in twelve days?

As time marches onward, Rabb gives us access and insight to Mia’s memories of her mother; some gawky dates in her efforts to truly connect with someone; her bouts with worry and a loss of control that has her reeling (“Maybe worry could save your life . . . Maybe worrying, thinking about . . . diseases, would make you feel more ready. You’d expect it . . . You’d have control — even if only a tiny, tiny bit”); her father’s awkward attempts at mothering alone (“I’d begun to wish there was some guidebook I could give him, How to Raise a Daughter or something,” Mia thinks); her feelings of recklessness (“I felt a sense of . . . being ready to cast off my cares {and my virginity} in a blink”); and Mia’s attempts to readjust to her previous life. When her father suffers a heart attack, she and her sister find themselves hanging out once again in a hospital, much to their dismay and fear. And, to complicate matters, during his recovery he meets Sylvia, whom he eventually asks to marry him. “The upsetting fact was that {my mother’s} death had changed him for the better,” Mia tells us. Despite the fact that he’s clearly struggling with his own grief and despite the fact that Mia knows he loved her mother dearly, his wife’s death makes him more affectionate than he ever was before, thus baffling Mia and her sister.

Mia’s aforementioned awkward dates and attempts to find love are both moving (particularly when she and her friend meet two guys in a bar, but the evening ends in her suddenly weeping at the thought of her mother); agonizing (her train wreck of an evening with Sylvia’s grown son); and naive in the eyes of a teen who has yet to consummate a relationship (“I wanted to be with a guy, to be lost in him the way I lost myself in books. I imagined that sex would be like that — that it would take away the world, and that afterward there’d be a sense of accomplishment, of having grown older”).

Each chapter is tightly drawn, and there are some emotionally riveting moments. As I read it, I got the sense that these chapters could stand on their own as short stories (indeed, an essay entitled “The Day My Mother Died” was pubished in Mademoiselle in May 2001, as the novel is based on Rabb’s own personal experience losing her mother as a teen. I also see at Rabb’s site that a short story entitled “My Mother’s First Lover” was published in Best New American Voices 2000; one of the outstanding chapters in the novel is “My Mother’s First Love,” though I’m not entirely certain these are the same stories). Hands down, the best chapter is “World History,” which I think should be Required Reading for the World If Not the Universe, certainly for high school students. Mia has returned to high school after her mother’s death, and her teacher is having the students in her classroom work with their A History of the World textbook and color-coded study skills packets that accompany the book (“which required writing long, dull answers to longer, duller questions”). Due to her absence, Mia had missed the class’ discussion of the second half of World War I, and the class was now on World War II. Mia opens her textbook to see a photograph of a concentration camp: “Bodies, bone-thin, huddled, half alive, limbs strewn about so that you could not tell which belonged to whom. Then the chapter ended . . . Everyone scribbled the assignment.” Continuing to stare at the photograph, the silence of her mother’s life becomes greater (“She’d rarely spoken of what happened to her family during the war; she’d tried to shelter us from it. She’d wanted being Jewish just to be the songs for us, the food . . . Her sheltering, her silence, had told us something darker just the same”). Seeing that the small photograph in the book, “with no names, no explanations, no decriptions of who the bodies were . . . wasn’t what my family had experienced,” still reeling from her own loss, and railing against the rigid, meaningless instruction in the classroom, she throws the book across the room at the window, her clueless, autocratic teacher’s face hardly changing. It’s a heartfelt, gripping chapter. Almost took my breath away.

In the end, what Mia comes to learn about love, how memory can sustain lost love, accepting change, whether it’s possible “to love and to part” (in the words of E.M. Forster), and the fact that there exist, of course, no cures for heartbreak is striking in its veracity. And never once does any of this cross over into The Land of Insufferably Sentimental, which would have been an easy thing to do, given the subject matter. Rabb’s fully-realized, deeply-feeling, and refreshingly irrevent Mia makes this journey a compelling and unforgettable one.

* * * * * * *

{My book source: Library copy, though the last few chapters I read were from a review copy}

7 comments to “Grief 101”

  1. There was a bit that particularly resonated with me – “What no one ever tells you is that people don’t die all at once, but again and again in waves, before their deaths and after.” There were several times where I thought I knew what would happen next, or which direction the book was headed, but I was always pleasantly surprised at how things developed.

  2. Uh, I just inadvertently deleted my own comment. D’oh! . . . What I said earlier was that, yes, Jess, there were so many beautiful passages I marked in this novel, but my reviews are already long enough, as is . . .

    I also appreciated the quotes Rabb pulled from other sources at the beginning of each chapter.

    I wonder if anyone else reacted as strongly as I did to the “World History” chapter. Powerful stuff.

  3. I did, Jules. The “World History” chapter was amazing.

    So far, and it’s already May, this is my favorite YA of the year.

  4. It always makes me happy to see you two review a YA novel! 🙂

    Now I have to get you to read The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen and The Pursuit of Happiness by Tara Altebrando. Put those together with Cures for Heartbreak by Margo Rabb (and perhaps a box of facial tissue) and you’ll have a trilogy of powerful stories about teenage girls coming-of-age through grief.

  5. Thanks, Kelly and LW! LW, I will add those titles to my huuuuuuge to-be-read pile. I will read any book you recommend.

  6. Jules, if there were a virtual bookstore or library right here, that’s the kind of statement that would lead to me filling an entire basket or bag full of books, then handing it to you!

  7. I was the lucky winner of Cures for Hearbreak a worthy prize offered on one of the blogs I read. It’s sitting on my TBR shelf right now, but seems like I’ll have to move it up in the queue. (If only I had a queue!)

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