Book Review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

  All My Puny Sorrows  front cover

All My Puny Sorrows front cover

What can I say about this novel? I came across it while browsing the "new book" shelves at the library. I think I picked it up because the bright orange cover caught my eye, it's not too big (good for carrying around and for holding in one hand while I eat) and the title intrigued me. I read the back cover and debated putting it back. I wasn't in the mood to read a book about the struggles of two sisters after one of them attempts suicide. But after a moment's reflection, I decided to give it a try.

As one of seven sisters, I was interested in the relationship between Elf and Yoli, which is described as "fiercely close". The dichotomy between their adult lives was intriguing; Elf is a happily married world-renowned pianist while Yoli is a struggling twice-divorced mother of two. And yet, it's Elf who feels the overwhelming desire to end her own life. Of course, if I'm being honest, my decision to read this novel comes down to two things: one, there is a protagonist named Elf (anything that reminds me of elves, faeries and magic makes me happy) and two, the sisters were raised in a Mennonite household (I'm enthralled by certain subcultures - the Amish, Mennonites, polygamists and gypsies to name a few).

This book made me cry but it also made me laugh. Parts of it were luminous and parts made me want to scrub myself clean. I'm not the kind of person who enjoys sifting through layers of words to find the meaning in what I read. I find it pretentious and annoying and quite simply, I lack the patience. The writing of this novel does rely heavily on the kinds of literature I can't stand to read but often still find beautiful on the surface, because Elf clearly has a much more deeply philosophical mind than I do. And yet, the overall style of Toews' writing is refreshingly straightforward, sometimes to the point of abruptness. More than anything, I would have to say that this book is real in all its beauty and grime, complexity and directness, humor and heartache.

I learned less about the Mennonite lifestyle than I was hoping for, would probably never re-read this book and might not ever read anything else Toews has written, yet I'm deeply glad that I read All My Puny Sorrows and I highly recommend it.