Miriam Toews, a talented writer of Mennonite descent hailing from Canada, gifts readers with her beautiful words in her newest novel, All My Puny Sorrows. AMPS is heavily based upon events related to Toews’ sister Marjorie, who struggled with depression and made numerous suicide attempts before finally succeeding 12 years after their father committed suicide by walking in front of a train.
The book’s main character, Yolandi, is deeply devoted to her sister Elfrieda, a talented, beautiful musician who “has it all.” Despite her perfect on-paper life, Elf is extremely depressed and can’t shake her desire to die. Yolandi, struggling with divorce number two, numerous one night stands, writer’s block on her next novel, and a teenage daughter, must pull it together to be there for her sister when she needs her most.
Yolandi is a very honest and insightful narrator throughout the novel: “It was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem. She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”
This broaches the delicate question of, what do you do when the person you love is suffering? Do you help them to end their suffering or do you sit by and idly continue to watch them suffer? Yolandi must make this incredibly difficult decision when Elf begs her to take her to Zurich, Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal. (Elf desperately wishes to die, however she is terrified to do so alone.)
Yolandi hovers over this shaky, thin line for some time. As her sister, the center of her world, is she supposed to refuse Elf, make her continue to live a life she doesn’t want to and be in agony every single day for her own selfish pleasure or should she actively aid in allowing Elf to no longer exist? Should she turn her back on black and white, right and wrong, to finally cave and grant her sister her last final wish? “Everyone in the whole world was fighting with somebody to stay. When Richard Bach wrote, ‘If you love someone, set them free,’ he can't have been directing his advice at human beings.”
I thoroughly enjoyed All My Puny Sorrows and devoured it like I would Taco Bell. Surprisingly, it was not as depressing as one might think. Toews’ writing was usually slightly humorous and somehow light. The women in the book were strong and positive forces to be reckoned with despite the dark, heavy subject matter: “…we descendants of the Girl Line may not have wealth and proper windows in our drafty homes, but at least we have rage and we will build empires with that, gentlemen.” I found it empowering and very “girl power.” Through each devastating blow this family takes, the connection and bond that ties them together is outstanding and somehow they come out still standing.
Toews tends to use long sentences, but in a really good way. Her writing is lovely and refreshing and poetic; she writes in a way that draws readers in and lets them know that what she has to say has significance. The long sentences make her words and thoughts seem more important.
There were obviously some tear-shedding moments, yet I did not think it was as morbid as it may seem. I found it a pleasure to read; thought-provoking and engrossing. I now want to read all of Miriam Toews’ novels and then sit down for lunch with her to discuss them. Practically every sentence she writes is quote-worthy, however my favorite that really stands out to me is: “‘Nothing happens in my life. Nothing has to happen,’ she said, ‘for it to be life.’”