I have leap-frogged over a couple of reviews to discuss this one, because I found myself composing this post in the time remaining in my commute after the novel stopped playing. Something in Leah Hager Cohen’s writing made me long to capture my reactions in my own prose with an intensity I don’t always feel, even after finishing many works of truly amazing literature. And this is definitely a work of literature. I have been reading recently, as part of a research project I hope to do, about the impact of reading literary fiction on various psychological variables. It turns out that reading literary fiction (as opposed to other sorts of fiction and non-fiction) has a measurable effect on the reader’s capacity for empathy. If numerous critics and the Orange Prize list-makers had not singled this one out as a piece of “lit-fic,” my experience of reading it would certainly have told me The Grief of Others fits securely in that category. Literary fiction makes you work, connects you to deep important threads in yourself. Sometimes it does this in hard, complicated, not entirely pleasant ways, but in this case, the same end was accomplished with grace and beauty and gentleness none of which detracted an iota from the novel’s power.
I didn’t find this novel through its great reviews or through the Orange Prize longlist (I don’t tend to focus on prizes til they reach the shortlist stage), but because of a long past connection to the author. I knew Leah Hager Cohen back in the 1980s when for a couple of magical summers I worked for a wonderful summer program known affectionately as Explo on the Wellesley College campus. It brought high school kids from around the country, as well as day students from the local Boston community, to Wellesley for a combination of classes taught by a few young professionals and a larger number of undergraduates from colleges like Harvard, Yale and Brown and fun activities and field trips led by the same absurdly talented motley crew. I was one of the very minor stars in this remarkable night sky. Some of those briefly snatched from the trajectory of their lives for an idyllic summer of languorous afternoons on the lawns and moonlit skinny-dips in the lake included in addition to Hager Cohen, Joe Bowie, who danced professionally for years first with Paul Taylor’s then Mark Morris’s modern dance companies and then retired to a second career as a Culinary Institute-trained baker, Michael Dorf, a constitutional law scholar and faculty member at Cornell University’s School of Law, Cathy Livingston, also an attorney and a leading authority on the Affordable Care Act, and Dimitri Christakis, a professor of pediatrics at University of Washington and expert on children and media whose TED talk is available here The sparkle of the memories from those summers has its source not just in the beautiful setting or the remarkable company in which I found myself, but also in the nature of that unique developmental moment: we were at once fully-formed selves and yet still paradoxically incipient versions of those selves we have since become. There is something of that transitional quality to the identities of the characters in The Grief of Others, despite the range in their ages. Each is a fully developed character with a clear and nuanced essential core, yet each is also on the cusp of becoming something more. I am tremendously grateful that social media’s capacity to reconnect us to dropped threads from the fabric of our earlier lives has brought Leah Cohen back into my world through her writing. Her adult self is possessed of both wisdom and a lyrical voice with which to convey it, and I look forward to her next novel, due out this spring.
When he was born he was alive. That was one thing.
He was a he, too, astonishingly–not that anyone expected him to be otherwise, but the notion of one so elemental, so small, carrying the complex mantle of gender seemed preposterous, the designation “male” the linguistic equivalent of a false mustache fixed above his infant lip.
His lips, how barely pink they were, the pink of the rim of the sky at winter dusk. And their curl–in the way that the upper lip rose to peaks and dipped down again, twice, like a bobbing valentine; and in the way the lower bowed out, luxuriant, lush, as if sated already from a lifetime of pleasures–how improbably expressive were his lips.
Leah Hager Cohen begins the beautiful and poignant tale of family and loss which is The Grief of Others with this passage. It is the start of the description of a tiny child, destined from long before birth to the only the briefest of time with his family. Cohen’s novel is a gorgeous, yet simple and direct, tale of the simultaneous strength and fragility of human connection. It is told from the varying perspectives of the members of the Ryrie family and of a recently orphaned college student whose path accidentally crosses with theirs at a key moment in their lives. To immerse yourself in this novel is to face questions not only of the mortality alluded to by the title, but also of one’s own capacity for emotional fidelity, honesty, and responsibility. To engage with Cohen’s beautiful prose is also to face the devastating reality of the many paths we must choose in the small moments which make up our lives, some of which may carry us far afield, even as we may only be beginning to recognize the destination to which we want to direct our journey. Cohen doesn’t provide a pat and simple closure either, but openly admits that to anticipate with too much certainty where the paths we choose will take us is an act of hubris, and so we are left simply with open questions and a quiet glimmering of hope to connect us to the characters as the book draws to a close. And this makes the gently devastating novel all the more satisfying, somehow.