All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews
Elfrieda and Yolandi, the protagonists of All My Puny Sorrows, Canadian author Miriam Toews’s seventh novel to-date, are sisters on different paths. The older, happily married, world-renowned pianist Elf suffers from severe depression and wants to commit suicide, while her younger sister Yolo is a young adult fiction writer who is deep in debt, soon to be divorced for a second time (and has two kids), and is unable to read a draft of her own first serious novel, electing instead to carry it around in a plastic carrier bag. Theirs is a relationship that has blossomed alongside a Mennonite upbringing. Like their religious background, the plot takes a backseat to the characters, whose purpose is the cause of keeping Elf alive, as Yolo tragically puts it.
The inevitability of Elf’s bid to end her life drives the novel’s characters throughout, keeping them on a merry-go-round of hospital visits, phone calls, and discussions about music, art and the meaning of life, as they strive to discover why Elf wants to die, and do what they can to avert it. Suicide as a solution is constantly questioned, even as Yolo falters in her role as life support machine and mother of two children, who on the one hand are dealing with education and the future and boyfriends who don’t speak English, and on the other, their mother, all via text. But still, Elf’s desire to die never leaves the characters’ thoughts, and it stays at the forefront of hers.
The tragedy of the story is not that Elf has everything a person could ever want, so why would she want to die, or even that Yolo, who constantly reprimands herself for the life she has, fails to see what she has achieved, but that the sisters fail to save each other. The partly auto-biographical novel (Miriam Toews’s father and sister committed suicide) demonstrates a lack of compassion from doctors for a suicidal person while understanding that such a feeling can be felt without any obvious reason, as is the case with the sisters’ father. The suicidal theme is overcome by an overriding sense of family—a family that is absolute in its love yet occasionally undecided in its expression.
All My Puny Sorrows is an incredibly personal story that manages to question both taking a life and the reasons to keep on living. And it will break your heart.