I first selected this book because of the title. With so many to choose from, it’s probably just as good a reason as any. then there is the fact that it’s published by McSweeney’s. If you are unfamiliar with McSweeney’s, it’s run by Dave Eggers and publishes authors with a rather quirky, unique styles. It’s a nice departure sometimes.
It was slow going at first for me with All My Puny Sorrows (AMPS), but once I made it through the first quarter of the book I was hooked. It’s heartbreaking, quick-paced and intelligent. The style has a cadence that takes a little getting used to. Author Miriam Toews doesn’t use quotation marks and has dialogue flow through paragraphs - unusual, but easy enough. It seems to suit her characters and their emotional states.
In AMPS, we have two sisters. Elf, a successful, but melancholy world-renowned pianist and Yoli, a divorced mother of two and struggling writer who adores, but lives in the shadow of her sister. They grow up in a Mennonite family in Canada, which is described as constantly at odds with the community. Toews shares the journey of Elf’s depression and wish to end her own life; Yoli’s struggle to manage her teenagers, two ex-husbands, stunted writing career and holding on for dear life to her sister; their mother’s own struggles handled with what seems to be unlimited chirpiness; and a cast of supporting characters - friends, lovers, neighbors and a sensitive auto mechanic. Toews weaves the story drawing on much of her own life’s experiences, adding to it’s authentic tone.
Toews has the ability to turn uncomfortable situations into the banal - sounds odd, but it’s effective with her shrewd humor. For example, Yoli gets stuck at the bottom of an icy hill. While she munches on a granola bar pondering how to get out of this mess, she remembers her friend Julie has spike shoes. After recounting the incident, Yoli simplifies the situation, “Rescue missions are occasionally very straightforward”.
Toews spills out the facts and traits of her characters slowly. Each time I thought I missed something, she brought the story together in her very next sentence. Her characters hide nothing from us - the emotion is tangible, and I almost felt badly when I laughed, but there is plenty of unexpected humor in this mournful tale.
Troubled with suicide, confusion and loss, somehow the reader is at ease with the honesty of the characters, I highly recommend All My Puny Sorrows - it’s unusual, frank, funny and hard to tear yourself away. As of this writing, AMPS is shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize, of which Bill Bryson is the Chair of Judges and has won the 2014 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.
Vickie’s rating: 4 stars