"All My Puny Sorrows" by Miriam Toews

What do you do when someone you love wants you to help them die?

Elfrieda and Yolandi are funny, smart, and loving sisters who grew up in a boundary pushing Mennonite family in Manitoba.  As adults, they are two very different women.  Elf is a world-renowned pianist, wealthy and happily married.  Yolandi is twice divorced with two kids desperately trying to find true love.  But together the sisters share a struggle that is hurting their family.  Elf wants to end her life and she wants Yoli to help her do it. 

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews, is a heartbreaking, tender and yet humourous novel about love, family, grief, and responsibility.  With a flood of emotions, it touches a difficult topic in an honest and incredible way.

The subject matter of the book along with Toews’ gentle way of approaching it makes this a difficult book to read in one go.  The emotions are so understated, I didn’t feel them creeping up on me.  I had to keep putting the book down and reading something else so I could digest it all.  And it makes sense that it would be this way given the fact that Toews has drawn on her own life for this book.  Just like Yoli, Toews’ own sister committed suicide as well as her father, and also like Yoli, she brought her mother to live with her and her kids in Toronto so they could rebuild after the tragedies.  As you read the book, you read knowing that this is her heart on the page.  And it has you questioning just what you would do if you were in that situation.

As I have mentioned there are so many emotions that the reader feels with this book.  The sorrow and sadness of Elf’s situation, the pain inside of her that she can’t shake.  The heartbreak that Yoli feels as she tries to decide if she will do what her beloved older sister is asking of her.  I felt anger at the attitude of the psychiatrist “caring” for Elf when she is in intensive care after a suicide attempt.  It is appalling, mostly because you understand that this is still the way mental illness is looked at and treated.  And I felt so much love toward the characters.  I absolutely loved the rebellion throughout the family, against their community and societal attitudes.  They are broken people navigating the world the best way they know how, far from perfect and very endearing.

I was drawn in by the incredible writing style of this book, how it is tender but packs a big punch.  This is a difficult subject to write about in general and to be able to write it with tenderness as well as humour is a big undertaking and Toews does it perfectly.  This is a book that will make you both laugh and cry over such a heart-breaking issue.  

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Random House of Canada.  The opinions expressed above are my own.


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