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Book Cover Image: The Grief of Others by Leah Hager CohenTitle: The Grief of Others

Author: Leah Hager Cohen

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):

“The Ryries have suffered a loss: the death of a baby just fifty-seven hours after his birth. Without words to express their grief, the parents, John and Ricky, try to return to their previous lives. Struggling to regain a semblance of normalcy for themselves and for their two older children, they find themselves pretending not only that little has changed, but that their marriage, their family, have always been intact. Yet in the aftermath of the baby’s death, long-suppressed uncertainties about their relationship come roiling to the surface. A dreadful secret emerges with reverberations that reach far into their past and threaten their future.

The couple’s children, ten-year-old Biscuit and thirteen-year-old Paul, responding to the unnamed tensions around them, begin to act out in exquisitely- perhaps courageously-idiosyncratic ways. But as the four family members scatter into private, isolating grief, an unexpected visitor arrives, and they all find themselves growing more alert to the sadness and burdens of others-to the grief that is part of every human life but that also carries within it the power to draw us together.”

Thoughts: The Grief of Others explores the breakdown of communication that typically results during periods of loss, no matter what the cause of the loss. Everyone handles loss differently, and through the eyes of six different characters, Ms. Cohen showcases the various ways others are affected by a typically internalized feeling. Often heartbreaking, The Grief of Others comes across as a warning shot to others who may be experiencing similar emotional upheaval.

Unfortunately, what starts out as poignant individualized stories of coping ends up devolving into a bewildering cacophony of chaos as the characters begin to come together and share their burdens with each other. This results with the introduction of two characters outside the Ryrie household through which the Ryries are forced to come to grips with their own mourning. Without the additional characters, the story would have remained concise and powerful. With the two characters, however, there are two more distractions from the overall story that detract from the Ryries’ experiences.

Ms. Cohen does a tremendous job capturing the subtleties of various reactions, especially the reactions of the children. From Biscuit’s fascination with funereal rights, Paul’s self-imposed isolation from all but one of his peers, Ricky’s withdrawal from her family, and John’s bewilderment, all four struggle with the long-lasting results of not seeking closure and discussing their feelings with each other at the time of the incident. Readers with children of similar ages to Biscuit and Paul will agonize over their withdrawals and mute forms of rebellion.

Unfortunately, Ricky’s and John’s struggles are not as powerful, as Ricky and John are not as sympathetic. Ricky’s motivations behind her decision to withhold key information from her husband are never fully explained in a satisfactory manner. John’s reactions to her “betrayal” appear overly dramatic for the situation. Furthermore, whereas Ms. Cohen satisfactorily concludes Biscuit and Paul’s futures, Ricky and John’s futures remain deliberately open to interpretation by the reader. It is frustrating and a trivialization to the seriousness of infidelity and trust on a marriage.

The Grief of Others is a book of two parts. When the story revolves around Paul’s and Biscuit’s issues, it is a poignant story that tugs on the heartstrings, as these two lost children try to grope their way around a larger world in which they have been left to flounder by their grieving parents. When the story revolves around Ricky and John, it is a maudlin, overly simplistic sermon on the dangers of keeping secrets and the importance of trust in a marriage. The two stories eventually come together by the end of the novel to create a confusing narrative in which a reader is not certain just what to take away from it in the end. That Ms. Cohen is trying to present her readers with a specific lesson is very clear; just what that lesson is remains unclear. It is the unfortunate dichotomy of story lines that creates a majority of the muddiness, which is unfortunate when one considers just how powerful the story could have been with the right focus.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to TLC Book Tours and Riverhead Books for my advanced reading copy!

For further thoughts on The Grief of Others, please check out the other stops on the book tour!

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