It was quite a shock to read the opening scene of The Grief of Others, the poignant and uplifting novel by Leah Hager Cohen. That’s because the premise – the death of a newborn born with a birth defect – was one I had just recently explored in a short story. Even the birth defect used was identical; with anencephaly, there is no brain development. The condition is “incompatible with life,” and after the delivery, the child typically lives only a matter of a few hours.
The short story I wrote focused on those few brief hours, and with my predilection for Sixth Sense sensibility, is written to withhold from the reader that the mother’s imaginings of her newborn daughter’s life reflect a life she will not be there to live. I like the story but put it aside, because I couldn’t imagine how it might be publishable.
But, heavens, Cohen does a fabulous job of doing just that – by placing this sad event in the context of a more complicated story. In The Grief of Others, the prologue addresses the baby’s birth. It is lovely, lyrical and sad. The rest of the book tells the complicated story of the imperfect Ryrie family and how the baby’s death is the catalyst for further complications.
Mom Ricky has a high-paid job in finance and commutes to the city. Her husband is a set designer, and this imbalance seems to trap them both. They have a passionate relationship but a lack of trust, and Ricky has a secret that undermines their ability to grieve together: she learned of the baby’s condition and decided against having an abortion, withholding this information from John so as to avoid having to include him. To lessen her guilt over keeping this secret, Ricky distances herself from John by focusing on his imperfections. And learning this secret rocks John’s world, causing him to question the basis for their relationship and putting the marriage in jeopardy.
John and Ricky have two children. Paul is suffering silently in high school, bullied daily, wondering just when it was that he became the object of everyone’s scorn. He has just one good friend, Baptiste, a Haitian immigrant who lives with his grandmother. They write graphic novels together. Ten year old Biscuit – short for Elizabeth – is quirky and willful, prone to skipping school. She’s been powerfully affected by the baby’s death and desperately searches for a way to bring closure to her grief.
Add to the mix Jess, John’s daughter from a college girlfriend, who arrives on the Ryrie doorstep pregnant. She slides surprisingly smoothly into their family life. Also included are Gordie Joiner and his father Will, who are struggling with Will’s illness and death during the novel’s timeframe.
Cohen does a beautiful job of revealing each character, complete in their complexity, in a way that can be achingly real. How these interconnected individuals struggle, lose their way, and come together again is what makes The Grief of Others a special novel.
Still! I don’t want you to get the idea that The Grief of Others is overwrought, sentimental, or – heaven forbid – a drag. There’s a great deal of humor in the novel, as well. Take, for example, how Cohen addresses lonely Gordie’s attraction to the Ryrie family.
“In fact, he’d taken Ebie walking in Memorial Park several times over the past ten days, at calculatedly varied times, in hopes of ‘running into’ any of the Ryries. He’d spotted Jess that morning first thing on arrival, and if he’d had any doubts that it was she, Ebie dispelled them by trotting right over, tail awag in recognition. He’d called her sharply away, mortified to think that the dog’s forwardness might be construed as his own.
And then, thought he’d observed from the corner of his eye Jess prop herself on her elbows and study them, Gordie had pretended not to recognize her: he’d given Ebie all his attention, immersed himself in this game of stick throwing with unusual intensity, the result being every aspect of it felt foolish, artificial. Here I am , athletic and good-natured. Here I am, loving my dog, who loves me. Here I am, lovable.”
Leah Hager Cohen has written several other novels; based on my enthusiasm for The Grief of Others, they’re definitely on my “to read” list!