I do most of my book reading on the subway to and from work, and I don’t let myself start reading a new book until I’ve posted a review of the one I’ve just finished on this here blog. When I’m in between books, I scroll through Twitter to pass the time on the train. While reading Cheryl Strayed’s Torch I often found myself scrolling through Twitter instead of reading the book, avoiding the thing like an uncomfortable email to which I did not want to reply. It was very difficult to get through.
38-year-old Teresa Rae Wood of Midden, Minnesota has just discovered that she has cancer. Not thank-goodness-we-caught-it-early cancer, not we-can-remove-the-tumor-and-you’ll-be-fine cancer, but you-have-a-couple-very-painful-months-to-live cancer. Knowing it won’t make a damn bit of difference Teresa goes through the motions of getting treatment, but within weeks she withers away to nothing in a hospital bed while her husband Bruce, daughter Claire and son Josh watch helplessly. (Actually, Josh doesn’t watch, he avoids the hospital entirely.)
Claire Wood has just discovered that her mother is dying of cancer. She immediately gives up on her last semester of college to come home and help her stepfather, and the two of them take turns pulling 12-hour shifts at the hospital until she’s gone. Claire loses her mother and subsequently loses herself, a bit — she has an affair with an older married man whose wife is dying in the same hospital as her mother, she breaks up with her longtime boyfriend for pretty much no reason, she moves back home then back to Minneapolis then back home again, never finishing school and working at the same local bar as her mother had.
She came to see that her grief did not have an end, or if it did, she would not be delivered there. Grief was not a road or a river or a sea but a world, and she would have to live there now. The world was different for each person, for her and for Joshua and for Bruce. She couldn’t say what Joshua’s or Bruce’s was, but hers was a place vast and wide. It was everywhere, and went on forever.
Bruce and Josh deal with Teresa’s illness and death in very different ways than Claire. Bruce remarries within months, his loneliness and depression absolutely unbearable. Josh drops out of high school and gets his girlfriend pregnant while pursuing a new profession of dealing weed and meth. Claire and Josh cut off their relationship with Bruce, horrified by his behavior, but Josh ends up in jail after getting caught with weed and then he gets out and his daughter is born and that sort of brings everyone back together. By the time one year has passed since their matriarch’s death, the three of them realize they have somehow moved on, and they are somehow ok. Mostly.
Strayed added a new introduction to this book after the success of her others — Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things — in which she claims that Torch is completely fictional, not at all the true story of her own mother’s illness and death. I don’t believe that for a second. I think the first half of the book, during which Teresa is actively dying, is almost word for word Strayed’s experience, and minus a few details it is also word for word my experience. The second half of the book, in which Teresa’s husband, daughter and son find their own paths to recovery, is what I think Strayed wishes had happened in her own situation. Or at least what she thinks may have happened if she had done a few things a little differently.
I have very much appreciated Cheryl Strayed’s writing, but I am glad that those are the only three books she has out there in the world. I don’t think I can take anymore.