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Her Last Death: A Memoir

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Her Last Death begins as the phone rings early one morning in the Montana house where Susanna Sonnenberg lives with her husband and two young sons. Her aunt is calling to tell Susanna her mother is in a coma after a car accident. She might not live. Any daughter would rush the thousands of miles to her mother's bedside. But Susanna cannot bring herself to go. Her courageous memoir explains why.

Glamorous, charismatic and a compulsive liar, ...
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Her Last Death: A Memoir

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Overview

Her Last Death begins as the phone rings early one morning in the Montana house where Susanna Sonnenberg lives with her husband and two young sons. Her aunt is calling to tell Susanna her mother is in a coma after a car accident. She might not live. Any daughter would rush the thousands of miles to her mother's bedside. But Susanna cannot bring herself to go. Her courageous memoir explains why.

Glamorous, charismatic and a compulsive liar, Susanna's mother seduced everyone who entered her orbit. With outrageous behavior and judgment tinged by drug use, she taught her child the art of sex and the benefits of lying. Susanna struggled to break out of this compelling world, determined, as many daughters are, not to become her mother.

Sonnenberg mines tender and startling memories as she writes of her fierce resolve to forge her independence, to become a woman capable of trust and to be a good mother to her own children. Her Last Death is riveting, disarming and searingly beautiful.
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  • Susanna Sonnenberg
    Susanna Sonnenberg  

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Extreme situations often result in extreme decisions. When she received the call about her mother's grave condition, Susanna Sonnenberg was leading a quiet, relatively normal life in Montana. Her first impulse was to make arrangements to fly to her mother's bedside, but then, she reconsidered. Sonnenberg's difficult relationship and long estrangement from her mother led her finally to reject any deathbed reunion. In Her Last Death, she examines the past incidents and tugs of emotion that caused such a drastic gesture of finality. Sometimes jarring, this memoir focuses on wounds and animosity that usually remain unspoken.
Michiko Kakutani
"Her Last Death recounts "the true calamity of being daughter to this mother," and the wonder of this memoir is that the author survived her traumatic childhood and found a way of turning her memories into a fiercely observed, fluently written book that captures the chaos and confusions of her youth, the daughter of an unpredictable pill-and-coke addicted mother and a brilliant, self-absorbed father, neither of whom had the faintest idea of how to be a parent."
—The New York Times
The New York Times

"Her Last Death recounts 'the true calamity of being daughter to this mother,' and the wonder of this memoir is that the author survived her traumatic childhood and found a way of turning her memories into a fiercely observed, fluently written book...Writing in sharp, crystalline prose, Ms. Sonnenberg... plung(es) readers into a sort of perpetual present tense in which we are made to experience, almost firsthand, the inexplicable and perverse behavior of an impossible woman from the point of view of her aghast, bedazzled -- and immensely gifted -- daughter."

Library Journal

This is one of the best memoirs to come on the scene since Jeanette Walls's The Glass Castle, though the world of Sonnenberg's childhood is as privileged as Walls's was marked by scarcity and want. With her two daughters, Sonnenberg's single mother, Daphne, managed to remain a part of this rarefied environment by the skin of her teeth, thanks to benevolent grandparents and the occasional contributions of a distant father. But while Daphne appeared electrifying and glamorous to the young Susanna, no amount of good fortune could keep her from descending, lie by lie, addiction by addiction, into as disappointing a figure as the father in The Glass Castle. Susanna's progressive disenchantment with her often abusive mother-Daphne introduced her daughter to cocaine and punched her in the stomach repeatedly for seemingly expressing interest in a new boyfriend-is charted with precise, unsparing, and luminous prose. A heartbreaking yet wickedly entertaining portrait of a magically seductive, immensely flawed mother who fails dramatically as a parent and of a daughter who learns to trust and love others despite an orphanlike upbringing marked by disillusion. Highly recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ9/1/07.]
—Elizabeth Brinkley

Kirkus Reviews
A deeply personal account of the author's thorny relationship with her mother. One morning, while "leading an unremarkable life" with her husband and young sons in Montana, Sonnenberg received a phone call with the news that her mother had been severely, probably fatally injured in a car accident. She set about making arrangements to fly to Barbados, where her mother lived, then changed her mind. They were already estranged, but this decision put a definitive end to the single most important and dependent relationship of the author's life. It also led to a breach with her sister, who was outraged that she wouldn't come to an apparently dying woman's bedside, then was stuck with the caretaking responsibilities when their mother recovered. The author's remembrances are designed to justify her decision not to go. She depicts her mother as a stunning and seductive pathological liar with a long history of cocaine and painkiller abuse, as well as unscrupulous sexual behavior. The author spent many years entangled in her mother's capricious demands, often unable to discern truth from lies. The shocking details Sonnenberg provides about her upbringing certainly show her mother behaving recklessly. The lack of maternal nurturing prompted a hunger in her for fulfillment elsewhere, first in romantic relationships and then as a mother herself. Yet they were close for decades, albeit often in an unhealthy way. Readers may not entirely understand the author's extreme choice to end contact altogether, or entirely credit her assertion that the distance between them now serves as a comfort. The permanent rift with her sister serves as a reminder of the cost of Sonnenberg's choice, with which she grapplesto live. Tragic but arresting-a worthy companion to Simone de Beauvoir's and Vivian Gornick's explorations of the complicated mother-daughter dynamic.
From the Publisher
"Her Last Death recounts 'the true calamity of being daughter to this mother,' and the wonder of this memoir is that the author survived her traumatic childhood and found a way of turning her memories into a fiercely observed, fluently written book...Writing in sharp, crystalline prose, Ms. Sonnenberg... plung(es) readers into a sort of perpetual present tense in which we are made to experience, almost firsthand, the inexplicable and perverse behavior of an impossible woman from the point of view of her aghast, bedazzled — and immensely gifted — daughter." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"An irresistible book that is shimmering with life and the portrait of a glorious, frenzied, seductive woman who of necessity has been left, along with Susanna Sonnenberg's young womanhood, behind. Her mother."

— James Salter, author of Last Night and Burning the Days

"Riveting, sexy, smart, and brazenly honest, Her Last Death is a memoir that demands and rewards total immersion. I couldn't put it down, didn't want to, and was sorry when it was over. Susanna Sonnenberg is a wonderful writer, and this is a marvelous debut."

— John Burnham Schwartz, author of Reservation Road and Claire Marvel

"Her Last Death is an emotional thriller. It is a manual for men and smart, searching individuals of any age or economic levels. For most of the book it is a disturbing story, yet at the end you might feel like cheering. It is a beautiful, beautiful book and I plan to give it to my nearest and dearest."

— Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes and Teacher Man

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781410406705
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 5/2/2008
  • Series: Thorndike Basic Series
  • Edition description: Large Print Edition
  • Pages: 419
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Susanna Sonnenberg is the author of Her Last Death. She lives in Montana with her family.

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Read an Excerpt

The phone shouldn't ring this early. When I answer, my aunt Irene rushes into the news. "Your mother's been in an accident. She's been in surgery all night. She's probably going to die." This can't be true, of course. I'm waiting for the story. Irene will laugh her exasperated laugh and say my mother used to date the surgeon. Or she's already secured a better hospital room. But Irene says my mother's in a coma, and when she finishes that sentence, I stop moving around the kitchen and sit. She usually calls her sister Daphne, but she keeps saying "your mother." My mother had a head-on collision after a dinner party. I want to ask if she was sober. Irene probably asked the same question of the person who called to tell her. "The police have a record this time," she says. "The hospital has a chart." The adrenaline of true emergency goes through me, and I draw a blank. I keep thinking, "My mother had an accident," but the thought has nowhere to settle and stick. "Susy?" my aunt says. She's worried for me. If I speak, I'll say, "Do I have to go?" So I mustn't open my mouth. I try to think what other people say in this situation. I'm afraid my mother will die. I'm afraid she won't.


In a house in Montana thousands of miles from my mother, I am thirty-seven, leading an unremarkable life. My mother lives in Barbados, where she stayed after her third husband died. I've never seen her house. She plays tennis and has houseguests, I hear, but we don't speak. Instead, I concentrate on the organic granola my two boys like, the seascape mural I'm about to paint on their bedroom wall. I preside over their school board and review movies for the paper. I send the photos of Halloween costumes and birthday parties to my father and stepmother. Last night, like most nights, my husband and I read books to each of the boys, crossing back and forth between their beds with kisses for them and patient hugs for their stuffed animals. This morning my husband will pack the lunch for our six-year-old, and I'll play with the two-year-old until his nap. We've just purchased this hundred-year-old house. On moving day I realized we would never invite my mother to see it. We live in sunny rooms messy with socks and books, a bathroom scattered with tub toys that are always drying, never dry. Christopher and I wonder before sleep at our boys' happiness and their invisible trust. Sometimes I'm jealous of them.

Over the years my aunt Irene and I have wearied together of the stories that start "Guess what Daphne did?" I tell a couple of them myself, rarely now but sometimes at a dinner party. My mother gave me cocaine! You wouldn't believe what she said to my new boyfriend! She had an affair with a mobster! These aren't stories I tell my children. The boys' voices topple down the stairs before they come into the kitchen. I'll need to hang up when they start to tug at me with their small demands. Irene says my grandmother, also in Barbados, has not gone yet to the hospital. "She's hopeless. A complete wreck." I should ask for the hospital's number but say, "Let's talk later," and hang up the phone. I tell Christopher enough to give him a sense of the news and go to another room to call my sister. What she knows will be different from our aunt's story. This is how we move forward in my family, calling one another in almost every configuration five people can make. One woman gets a call, puts down the phone, picks it up again, repeats the story, hears another version. We fold in the new details that are not yet our own and patch together pieces until a certain sense emerges. My younger sister and I have an uneasy truce on the subject of our mother. We don't want to fight, so we don't mention her. When Penelope answers she sounds like she's drowning. "Oh, sweetie," I say until she can stop sobbing and tell me what she's heard. Newly married, lucky with fun jobs that flame out fast, Penelope lives in the New York apartment where we grew up, subletting from our mother. She doesn't seem to mind being buoyed by the swells of Daphne's manic behavior. When our mother comes to the city, Penelope gives her pink sheets in the room that used to be ours and carries the paper in to her in the mornings. Penelope's report matches Irene's. "I've got the first flight out in the morning. What about you," she says, inflection absent. "I've got to figure out the kids," I say. I'll call her back. Christopher's mother could stay with the boys. He says, "Just let me know what you need, I'll do it." I'll need him to come with me, but what else? What else do I need? I go on-line, look into fares. All the flights are full, the cost enormous. "I'm not sure I can do anything," my travel agent warns. I'm off the hook, relieved, but there's also the part of me that longs for my mother in moments like these, her gall and grandeur. In the airports of my childhood she'd say, "Girls, you sit down over there," and she'd straighten her fitted suede jacket, align the silk scarf at her throat and ease her way to the front of the first-class line for an overbooked flight. "Don't worry," I'd tell Penelope, holding her hand. "She'll get us on." I could pick out our mother's laugh above the other voices, then her confidential murmur as she made a gift of her attention to the clerk behind the counter. People, men especially, liked doing things she wanted, couldn't help themselves. She made them feel they'd be important to her. Her well-cut hair flowed past her shoulders, and she lined her eyes with kohl. She had elegant arched eyebrows. She wore platform heels, even with her bad back, and sheer blouses fastened in a V between her breasts. Sometimes people thought she was our babysitter, a sophisticated, pretty teenager. She'd brandish her knockout smile and say, "No, I'm the mummy." She knew wit made her sharp features softer, and she was funny, agile with an anecdote or a naughty observation. When she beckoned we got up and went over, and the clerk would say, "I'm sorry about your grandmother" or "I hope your daddy will be okay." We knew to fall into the act long enough to make it to those first-class seats. When we went out together, my mother made us the stars and the champions. She tossed off rapid, irreverent remarks, urged indulgence out of the most recalcitrant of salesgirls, seduced the most unhaveable of men. She spent money with fuck-you abandon. To walk into a deli with her and order a sandwich was a particular commitment, a willingness to let her own the day.


I've lived apart from my mother since I left for boarding school at fourteen. I called home often then, pressing her voice to my ear, our mutual interest insatiable. She called me from restaurant cloakrooms and lovers' beds, ready to start new rumors. She called from hospitals after back surgery. She phoned from airports, dinner parties and the lobbies of movie theaters in which she stood weeping over a love story. She needed me, she said, to calm her down.

Her sexual allure extended from bartenders and cabdrivers to rock stars, football heroes and anchormen. "He calls me whenever he's in town," she told me of an actor whose name was bigger than any movie he'd starred in. I was eleven, precocious with contempt, and said, "That's too much, I don't believe you." She had him call me that afternoon from his hotel suite while she was there. "Your mother says you don't believe her, Susy." It was obviously him, his famous seduction in each slow syllable. "Susy? You should always believe your mother." I had to admit that now I believed her. One night the following year, touring boarding schools, we took a Cosmo quiz together. We traded the magazine between the motel beds, circling multiple-choice answers on pleasure and technique. She used a pen and I used a pencil so we could tell our answers apart. As I tallied our scores she was restless, up and down, over to the dresser where she had cocaine set out. That admissions guy was cute, didn't I think? She wiped at her gums in the mirror. "This is weird," I said, nervous. I tried to ignore the tiny smug feeling. "How'd I do?" She bounced onto her bed. It was there in the numbers. Her score meant she was a "Shrinking Violet," but I'd aced the test. The magazine called me -- the eighth-grader, desperate for a first French kiss -- "High-Powered Lover." "I guessed," I said."Miss Know-Everything," she said and shut the bathroom door on me. I wanted to erase the pencil marks and give her my answers. I knew she seduced movie stars, even if Cosmo didn't believe her. *** While I was pregnant with my first child a friend told me, "Having the baby brought me and my mother a lot closer together. You'll see." This made me uneasy, not just because I was dubious about that intimacy, its conditions; I couldn't explain to my friend that my relationship with my mother had never adhered to predictable guidelines, social models. I didn't have a language for the tangle of being with her. In the insomniac hours near my due date, I phoned Daphne a lot. It was true, pregnancy gave me permission to accept her attention, and we could make each other laugh so easily if I let go. She'd repeat the adventures of young marriage, of having me at nineteen, and I listened with new interest. She seemed to remember everything and told on herself so well. I'd quiet my laugh in the living room, away from my sleeping husband. After Daniel was born, though, I began to inch off further. I needed my energy for my child. My mother hadn't given me a useful example, although she insisted she had. "I know I fucked up quite a lot," she'd say, merry. "But you always knew you were loved. You always felt loved." I didn't want her around the baby, couldn't imagine leaving him in a room with her, and she knew it although we didn't mention it, real hurt on both sides, real loss. I just stopped inviting her, and I scheduled my visits to New York between hers. For a few calm years I only talked to her now and then. It seemed like that would work. At the birthday parties of friends' babies I watched grandparents help with the candles or the camera. I went into the bathroom and cried, jealous and ripped off. Why didn't we get to have that? At the time my answer, my comfort, was that no one was responsible for the rupture but stubborn me.*** The morning I delivered my second son I called her from the hospital bed. We still shared the rare news in brief, formal calls. Daniel was four then, wearing the baseball caps she would send him. She sent more presents for the baby. Then she got cancer. My sister called to tell me, weeping. "And it's such a painful kind," she said. "Oh, God." "What stage is it in?" This was a question you asked about cancer."I don't know," she said. I thought of my boys, whether I'd made a mistake keeping their grandmother from them, how there'd be no chance unless I hurried. After Penelope hung up, I called Barbados. Daphne answered quickly. I told her what Penelope had said. "I've already started treatment," my mother said. "I'll probably have to leave the island to get better care." "Is Penelope going to come down? Should I come?" "It's too far," she said. "You have a newborn." She was vague on the progress of the disease and wouldn't let me talk to her doctor. "He's been absolutely wonderful, though," and in a faultless Bajan accent she gave me a few details about him. We started flirting. "Tell me about Jack. Has he smiled yet?" I wanted to tell her. His noises, the way he watched his brother."And his little tiny toes?" she said, as I knew she would. "Are they tiny and perfect? Oh, toes!" Even though this talk sort of revolted me, it was our way, a sumptuous code. As I held the baby, I wanted it obvious I understood that cancer took priority. And I wanted to share other news, too, sort through all our gossip together. She said she was dying but brightened. "At least it's brought us back together." "Yes," I said, careful, feeling an ominous weight. I had dropped my grievances too fast, drunk on the old intimacy. "I'm glad we're back, darling," she said. She called many times then, called lonely and looking for reassurance, called wistful and tired and sweet and sad. I took the calls, though I had to manage them amid breast-pump instructions and Daniel's meltdowns and supper prepared one-handed. In a quick few days this was too much. "Can I call you back?" I said one morning, the baby at me, my sleepless temper frayed. "You probably won't hear from me for a while," she said. "I'll be incommunicado during chemo."


She was suddenly better. She was cured. She didn't want to talk about any of it. She felt good now, she said. Could she visit, see the baby? My sister and I matched up our pieces of her recovery. We were used to checking with each other (" -- and please don't tell your sister"), fitting together a complete story from the fragments she discarded. But we couldn't get these details to align. The discrepancies were too great, and we didn't want to notice this together. Then a family friend told me Daphne hadn't been "incommunicado" for six weeks of radiation. She'd been at a spa in France or at a diet clinic. There was no doctor. It was an invented doctor.

Usually I ignored the discovered lies until they mattered to me less. But that day I phoned. "So you didn't have cancer." I made sure we both understood the topic. "I can hardly move," she said. Her voice perked up. "How's the baby and his tiny perfect toes?" "Can we talk about you?" She sighed and referred to the emergency room. "I was in agony. It could have been cancer." "I need to have a relationship with you in which you don't lie to me.""What?" She slapped the word. "Don't you lie? Haven't you ever lied? How dare you?" "Mum, you lied to us about having cancer. About dying." I would slow this down, go carefully. I didn't know how my sister had handled it, her reaction. "Lying makes farce between two people. It makes me stupid, and we can't have a real relationship if I -- "She pounced. "You're being melodramatic. And you can cut the formality with me, miss. You sound like your father." I had expected an assault, then my habitual resolute surrender; it was easier to let her say what she wanted. In a few months or weeks, she'd be telling the man beside her on an airplane about the nausea of chemotherapy and the doom of medical bills. She told things compulsively until she believed herself. By next year she would be a real cancer survivor, and I wouldn't be able to recall why the episode confused me. I'd be the daughter of a cancer survivor. In the kitchen Daniel played at the table as Christopher unloaded the dishwasher. While my mother listed her accusations, I could hear my son's placid chirping and the radio turned low, a habit ingrained by years of napping babies. My mother, entrenched in her fictions, wasn't real life anymore. I thought: This is our last conversation.

Now my aunt says she's really going to die. My sister says she's going to die. After those calls, I cancel things. Around me, friends gather close, the network of concern immediate and effective. Someone drops off food and takes the boys to school. My Montana friends haven't heard much of Daphne, her absence in my life so thoroughly settled. This morning I have to say, "My mother's been in a bad accident." Because it's her it doesn't sound like the truth. "She's in a coma," I'm telling them, and resent the soap opera. "I'm so sorry. How awful. When will you go?" They assume that I'll leave quickly, that a daughter far away wouldn't stand around wondering about anything. I go to bed and wake the next day, still not knowing whether to stay or go. My mother-in-law arrives. When the travel agent calls with a hard-won itinerary, I jot down notes about the connections. "Let me check with Christopher," I tell her. My mother-in-law sits me at the kitchen table and starts a list. Passport, sunscreen, a hat. She is grave but untroubled: disaster has its own rules, you just go. She pats the top of my hand and says, "You have to do it. It's not a choice." She's almost happy for me. I feel strengthened by this woman's moral compass, her certainty and sense of duty, and I leave the table to check the closet for my carry-on, then pick up the phone to confirm the flights. "It's not a choice," I tell Christopher later. I'll believe it tomorrow on the plane. Today I'm relieved to have instructions."Why isn't it a choice?" he asks. "Because she's my mother." I've started to stack folded clothes on the bed. I wonder if I should pack a bathing suit. "She couldn't help it this time. I have to go." He gives me a tender look. For nine years he has watched me try to get the stories straight, or try to rebuild in the wake of her devastations and reversals. He knows the energy I've lost, the order I attempted to restore after each incoherent phone message, seething letter or abrupt departure. I tried to make each time the fresh start. "You don't have to. You still can make a choice," he says. "It'll be hard, but you have the right to do that. You have a right." I don't want the right. Of course I should go. Of course it'll be hard. Irene is going, my grandmother's there. My sister is waiting for me to arrive in a taxi from the airport. She's been on the island for two days already, grappling alone with news of nothing, while I, surrounded by my husband, my sons, my friends, have waited for paralysis to wear off. *** This is the moment in the story when the facts converge: the estranged daughter, the threat of death and the one last chance. All the tellings should coalesce into a mutual truth. I overcame trepidation and did the right thing, my mother woke from her coma erased of her vulgar impulses and unable to lie, and my children admired my generosity and forbearance. Tragedy transformed us. But that's not me. In my story I do not go. No one in the family disputes that.


I'm alone at the kitchen table, and I call my sister in Barbados, embarrassed I'm still at home. Right away she starts reporting. After three surgeries in thirty-six hours, the doctors are coping with our mother's shattered shins and pelvis. Her front teeth are gone; her organs won't reveal their damage for a few days. The details stagger me. Penelope knows too much and too little. Where's the relief of the con unveiled, the act resolved? But there's only my sister in dry tears and our mother, who won't wake up.

"Penelope." I stop her. For two days I've tasted nothing but contradiction. Should, can't, will, mustn't. I look around -- coffee at the bottom of the French press, the balled-up sweat jackets on the floor by the back door, the dog's empty water dish. I fix the vision of us in my mother's hospital room, and I become a character who hardly matters, picked clean, used well. "I love you more than anything," my mother used to whisper, italics in every word, pinning herself against me in an embrace. My sister needs her sister; we both do. I imagine being on the flight, and I can't breathe. To go I'll have to shut myself down, put myself away. I've done it before. I inhale exhale choose -- "I'm not coming." I'm a person who isn't going to her mother's deathbed. What will people think of me? I'm so distracted by relief, by the surprise of what I've given myself, that I forget my sister for a second."Is it money?" Penelope says. "Yes. Well, no." I don't blame her for the focus on practicality. She doesn't see what I see, and I can't infuse her with my history. My sister, having lived the same years in the same rooms, lived them differently. She thinks I don't love our mother. I've never told her that at thirty-seven, sick with flu or after too much wine with a rich dinner, I kneel in the bathroom, heaving into the toilet, and that's where I wish for my mother. When I needed to throw up, Mummy came and sat on the edge of the tub. She put her arm around my shoulders and swept hair off my forehead. I was afraid, but she made it safe. She kept my nightgown out of the way, and I retched. She soothed me and said, "Almost done." When I throw up now, waiting for the next heave, I want her to lift the toilet seat for me, wipe my mouth, steady me against my own contractions. That's when I had her."I can't go to her anymore." "You think this is about you?" Her voice is cold and so tired. She takes a breath. "Have you thought about how you'll feel if you don't say good-bye?" "I can't go." "You're not coming?" "I love you," I say, and I'm the one who's crying. I mean these three words, the whole "I," the fervent intricacies of love, the scope of Penelope. I don't want to lose my sister, but I must wrap my arms around myself. With my mother I had nothing left to lose, the last of a daughter scattered as ashy silt, the orphan collapse. "I have to stay here," I say. "I have to, and I love you. You believe me?" But she's not listening anymore. I'm not going. The words are out, and they make it true.
Read More Show Less

Introduction

Questions for Discussion

1. Her Last Death opens with the report of Daphne's car accident in Barbados and the author's decision not to go to her. Readers have the rest of the book to contemplate Susanna's choice while learning about the family history behind it. Near the book's end Sonnenberg writes, "What kind of person doesn't go to her mother's deathbed?....I didn't go because I couldn't. That's what had become of us" (p. 268). Did you agree with Sonnenberg's decision? Did your feeling about her choice change after she unfolded the story of her childhood and adolescence with her mother?

2. When Susanna meets her English teacher Wyatt for the first time Daphne tells her, "He adores you....Trust me...[t]he world is about sex" (p. 112). Susanna loses her virginity to Wyatt when she is sixteen and engages in a lengthy affair with him. She subsequently spends many years having sex "with everybody." "I used to court oblivion, cancel everything, forget trouble. That was sex's delicious point, the glittering instruction of lust and its momentum" (p. 189). How do Daphne's promiscuity and lack of boundaries influence Susanna's attitude toward sex and her choice of sexual partners? Discuss the theme of sex in the book and the various ways it is used.

3. Sonnenberg can be self critical. She writes openly about what she sees as her own flaws. When she learns her boyfriend Gordon has left her for a friend of theirs she writes, "She'd been to our parties. She'd asked how Gordon was in bed....I was supposed to be in that role, the late-arriving seductress, the snake of a friend" (p. 185). Why does Susanna describe herself this way? What other elements make up heridentity and how do they evolve from her adolescence into her thirties? Did you find yourself feeling judgmental and if so, why? How does her mother evolve?

4. Daphne abuses illegal and prescription drugs, is hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, physically assaults Susanna and lies compulsively. Sonnenberg never diagnoses Daphne's behavior; instead she describes the outcomes that arise from "the tangle of being with her" (p.6). How is her omission unusual?

5. Aside from leading to an estrangement with her mother, in what other ways did Sonnenberg's decision to stay in Montana after Daphne's accident change her life? Consider her various family relationships, her sense of self, her history with her mother, and her aspirations for her own children.

6. How might you say that Sonnenberg's relationship with her mother is in some ways a heightened version of any typical mother-daughter relationship? What qualities of their relationship are most distorted?

7. Writing is important to Susanna's life. What role do writing and reading play in Sonnenberg's telling of this story? What is the effect of the diary entries in the book?

8. Although Sonnenberg's father could be critical and distant, and did nothing to protect his daughters from Daphne's harm, Sonnenberg has a good relationship with him as an adult. "He could hurt my feelings, still exasperate me with his self-absorption, but we enjoyed each other" (p. 272). Why is Susanna able to forgive her father and get along with him?

9. Discuss the complicated relationship between Daphne's expectations for Susanna's life and Susanna's own expectations and perception of herself. How is this a common and difficult issue for all parents and children?

10. Sonnenberg provides a note at the beginning of the book: "This is a work of memoir and subject to the imperfections of memory. I have been faithful to what I remember, and people in my family may remember shared experiences differently...I have changed all names but my own to emphasize that this story could only be mine." What does Her Last Death show about the nature of memory, especially in families? How else is the story only Susanna's, and not her mother's or her family's?

11. Susanna arrives in Montana ready to start fresh and live a simpler life, emulating the behavior of her future husband Christopher. "With Christopher everything was the machine of the oiled world, just going along" (p. 202). Yet by the time she checks into her first motel she'd "already lied, couldn't go more than a day. Tomorrow I'd start again" (p. 202). How does lying help or hinder Susanna as she tries to cope with the world? How does she begin to understand her habits and to break them?

12. How does the presence of wealth in Susanna's family shape her mother's behavior and the family dynamic? How do the issues of wealth and class shape the book as a whole? How do Daphne's wealth and beauty influence people's perception of her and of her parenting skills?

13. Susanna is strongly drawn to Christopher's honesty. In what other ways is Christopher different from anyone Susanna has ever met? What makes him the driving force behind Susanna's transformation? Is he also flawed?

14. It has been only five months since Susanna's abortion when Christopher decides he is ready for children. "I took it on glumly. The thought kept coming back: I would still be pregnant if he'd realized a little faster. My March 30th baby was due in two months" (p. 226). How did you feel about Christopher's change of heart? Why do you think Sonnenberg includes the abortion in the book?

15. Going through letters from her mother, Sonnenberg is struck by the way Daphne "wanted to prove so much, conquer my resistance. Again and again, her longing for me overtakes the letter...This is the hardest thing for me to read, how much she wanted me, how distant I stayed" (p. 259). Did you sympathize with Daphne? Do you think there was any way for Susanna and Daphne to continue a relationship?

16. How do the few flashbacks at the end of the book emphasize the difficulty of the choice Sonnenberg has made? Why do you think she chose to showcase these particular incidents at the end? How are they related?

17. How does Her Last Death compare to other memoirs you've read, particularly those focusing on parent-child relationships or difficult childhoods?

Enhance Your Book Club:

1. Visit the author's website at www.susannasonnenberg.com for reviews, upcoming appearances, and other news. Many of Sonnenberg's personal essays from such publications such as O, the Oprah Magazine and Parenting can also be found online. (Elle articles can't be found online)

2. Choose a memory or detail about yourself that you haven't admitted or revealed and share it. What does it feel like to say it aloud, to have others hear it, to invite other people's responses?

3. If you liked Her Last Death, try some other memoirs about unusual childhoods, such as The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, The Liars' Club and Cherry by Mary Karr, This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy, The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff, Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison, and Them by Francine du Plessix Gray.

Susanna Sonnenberg was born in London in 1965 and grew up in New York. Her essays have appeared in Elle, O, the Oprah Magazine and Parenting, among other magazines. She lives in Montana with her husband and two sons.

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide


Questions for Discussion

1. Her Last Death opens with the report of Daphne's car accident in Barbados and the author's decision not to go to her. Readers have the rest of the book to contemplate Susanna's choice while learning about the family history behind it. Near the book's end Sonnenberg writes, "What kind of person doesn't go to her mother's deathbed?....I didn't go because I couldn't. That's what had become of us" (p. 268). Did you agree with Sonnenberg's decision? Did your feeling about her choice change after she unfolded the story of her childhood and adolescence with her mother?

2. When Susanna meets her English teacher Wyatt for the first time Daphne tells her, "He adores you....Trust me...[t]he world is about sex" (p. 112). Susanna loses her virginity to Wyatt when she is sixteen and engages in a lengthy affair with him. She subsequently spends many years having sex "with everybody." "I used to court oblivion, cancel everything, forget trouble. That was sex's delicious point, the glittering instruction of lust and its momentum" (p. 189). How do Daphne's promiscuity and lack of boundaries influence Susanna's attitude toward sex and her choice of sexual partners? Discuss the theme of sex in the book and the various ways it is used.

3. Sonnenberg can be self critical. She writes openly about what she sees as her own flaws. When she learns her boyfriend Gordon has left her for a friend of theirs she writes, "She'd been to our parties. She'd asked how Gordon was in bed....I was supposed to be in that role, the late-arriving seductress, the snake of a friend" (p. 185). Why does Susanna describe herself this way? What other elements make up her identity and how do they evolve from her adolescence into her thirties? Did you find yourself feeling judgmental and if so, why? How does her mother evolve?

4. Daphne abuses illegal and prescription drugs, is hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, physically assaults Susanna and lies compulsively. Sonnenberg never diagnoses Daphne's behavior; instead she describes the outcomes that arise from "the tangle of being with her" (p.6). How is her omission unusual?

5. Aside from leading to an estrangement with her mother, in what other ways did Sonnenberg's decision to stay in Montana after Daphne's accident change her life? Consider her various family relationships, her sense of self, her history with her mother, and her aspirations for her own children.

6. How might you say that Sonnenberg's relationship with her mother is in some ways a heightened version of any typical mother-daughter relationship? What qualities of their relationship are most distorted?

7. Writing is important to Susanna's life. What role do writing and reading play in Sonnenberg's telling of this story? What is the effect of the diary entries in the book?

8. Although Sonnenberg's father could be critical and distant, and did nothing to protect his daughters from Daphne's harm, Sonnenberg has a good relationship with him as an adult. "He could hurt my feelings, still exasperate me with his self-absorption, but we enjoyed each other" (p. 272). Why is Susanna able to forgive her father and get along with him?

9. Discuss the complicated relationship between Daphne's expectations for Susanna's life and Susanna's own expectations and perception of herself. How is this a common and difficult issue for all parents and children?

10. Sonnenberg provides a note at the beginning of the book: "This is a work of memoir and subject to the imperfections of memory. I have been faithful to what I remember, and people in my family may remember shared experiences differently...I have changed all names but my own to emphasize that this story could only be mine." What does Her Last Death show about the nature of memory, especially in families? How else is the story only Susanna's, and not her mother's or her family's?

11. Susanna arrives in Montana ready to start fresh and live a simpler life, emulating the behavior of her future husband Christopher. "With Christopher everything was the machine of the oiled world, just going along" (p. 202). Yet by the time she checks into her first motel she'd "already lied, couldn't go more than a day. Tomorrow I'd start again" (p. 202). How does lying help or hinder Susanna as she tries to cope with the world? How does she begin to understand her habits and to break them?

12. How does the presence of wealth in Susanna's family shape her mother's behavior and the family dynamic? How do the issues of wealth and class shape the book as a whole? How do Daphne's wealth and beauty influence people's perception of her and of her parenting skills?

13. Susanna is strongly drawn to Christopher's honesty. In what other ways is Christopher different from anyone Susanna has ever met? What makes him the driving force behind Susanna's transformation? Is he also flawed?

14. It has been only five months since Susanna's abortion when Christopher decides he is ready for children. "I took it on glumly. The thought kept coming back: I would still be pregnant if he'd realized a little faster. My March 30th baby was due in two months" (p. 226). How did you feel about Christopher's change of heart? Why do you think Sonnenberg includes the abortion in the book?

15. Going through letters from her mother, Sonnenberg is struck by the way Daphne "wanted to prove so much, conquer my resistance. Again and again, her longing for me overtakes the letter...This is the hardest thing for me to read, how much she wanted me, how distant I stayed" (p. 259). Did you sympathize with Daphne? Do you think there was any way for Susanna and Daphne to continue a relationship?

16. How do the few flashbacks at the end of the book emphasize the difficulty of the choice Sonnenberg has made? Why do you think she chose to showcase these particular incidents at the end? How are they related?

17. How does Her Last Death compare to other memoirs you've read, particularly those focusing on parent-child relationships or difficult childhoods?

Enhance Your Book Club:

1. Visit the author's website at www.susannasonnenberg.com for reviews, upcoming appearances, and other news. Many of Sonnenberg's personal essays from such publications such as O, the Oprah Magazine and Parenting can also be found online. (Elle articles can't be found online)

2. Choose a memory or detail about yourself that you haven't admitted or revealed and share it. What does it feel like to say it aloud, to have others hear it, to invite other people's responses?

3. If you liked Her Last Death, try some other memoirs about unusual childhoods, such as The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, The Liars' Club and Cherry by Mary Karr, This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy, The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff, Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison, and Them by Francine du Plessix Gray.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 36 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(7)

4 Star

(19)

3 Star

(6)

2 Star

(1)

1 Star

(3)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 36 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 2, 2010

    Take it or leave it.

    This isn't the worst memoir I've ever read, but it's certainly not the highly acclaimed "best seller" it's being marketed as either..

    I originally picked up this book because I not only love memoirs, and because I was intrigued by the parallels in my own life. My mother is a pathological liar (has faked cancer and other illnesses), struggled with drug/alcohol abuse and was not only mentally but sometimes physically abusive with my siblings and I. I did find a lot of the parallels I was searching for, especially in the ways her sister reacted to the same upbringing..

    However not even a fourth of the way into the book and I was starting to wonder who the liar really was.. The book was startlingly far fetched and just overall unbelievable. I had a very hard time believing most of these events really occurred and found myself waiting for the "trick" ending where the author would let on that she herself masterminded all of these lies and schemes. It seemed like a work of fiction to me, rather than a "memoir".

    I will say however that the authors writing and style is uncanny! Truly well written, very great character development as well.

    As a lot of other reviews said the book was very over the top inappropriate at times. I personally found that to be fitting of the story line. I can't fathom why anyone who is easily offended by "vulgar" language/sex/drug use would intentionally pick up a copy of a book that is about a negligent mother who is heavily into cocaine and promiscuous sex.

    I found the book extremely slow going most of the time. The only thing that got me through at times is the fact that I hate to put a book down halfway through unless it's absolute garbage.

    Overall "Her Last Death" has pros and cons which is why I chose to give it a "3 star" rating.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2008

    Memoir at its most vivd

    In HER LAST DEATH, Susanna Sonnenberg achieves what I believe the very best memoirs can accomplish. She paints a vivid, living picture, not just of a life but of her relationship with her manic but unbalanced mother, and she does so with prejudice and personal perspective. Memoir is not autobiography at its very best, the genre tells us not the facts and objective observation of the events. Memoir takes us into the heart of the author's experience, and it is its very subjectivity that gives it power. HER LAST DEATH brings the reader into Sonnenberg's internal world, a tumultuous place where both a mother's love and her sanity are always in question. Sonnenberg doesn't flinch from the light when it comes to examining her own stumbles and weaknesses, and when an understanding of her troubled mother's psyche eludes her, as it often does, the author doesn't engage in conjecture or armchair psychoanalysis. Instead, she allows us to experience this inexplicable world with her, and in the end, we are left not so much with a sense of who her mysterious mother might have been, but rather whom the author has ultimately become. In the course of facing a difficult past and its ramifications for her future, Susanna Sonnenberg has shown herself to be an extremely talented writer, and I eagerly await more from her.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 10, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    had me from the first line

    I loves this book and was sad to find out there arent anymore by the author. I am an avid reader that doesnt like sappy romantic books or creepy thrillers either. This book had a perfect mix of love, romance, family dysfunction and awesone characters. I am sure i will ead again!!!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 12, 2009

    It was rich with expression and honesty.

    Both my daughter and I were so into this book, that we did not want it to end. We wanted more to the story though, we wanted to know what ever happen to Jason!!! It was a true bonding for my daughter and I.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 5, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    different but touching

    i read this story because i felt, unfortunantely, i could relate. i think this tale is true & to the heart. i would recommend it to anyone who has had mother issues. and i don't mean mother issues in the "normal" sense. i mean mother issues, such as your mother sleeping with your boyfriend. or her offering you drugs & being disappointed if you say no.

    susanna's writing is something different though. at times there were incomplete sentences & thoughts. sometimes wondered why certain things were put into the story & found myself trying to ignore certain sentences because they made no sense.

    i was also disappointed that there wasn't a resolution in the end. there was no end to what happens with her sister or mother.

    all in all, it was a good read but not as good as i had expected.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2008

    Great Memoir !

    This was a very touching memoir about a mother-daughter relationship gone bad, and for very good reason. The author does an excellent job telling her story. This is definitley a must read for anyone raised by dysfunctional parents. Highly recommend it!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2008

    Um no

    I had no idea this was a true story - YIKES - it's extremely hard to imagine any parent as horrible as this author's mother. Shocking. I can't imagine anything of value I learned from reading this book. I was simply curious as to why a child wouldn't want to visit her dying mother ....

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2008

    Heartbreaking

    This book touched my heart. For those who have lived a 'normal' childhood this book may seem surreal. I happened to have the middle class version of Susannah's mother. Where some people may not understand, there comes a time with a woman like this when you have to say 'enough' even if it does break your own heart. I thank the author for her brutal honestly that sometimes came at her own expense. I wish I had known there were other people like me, living with a force of nature like this, growing up.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2013

    No

    can not recommend to any thinking person

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  • Posted September 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I liked it.

    I started reading this one day in Barnes & Noble while my baby napped. I was interested enough that I have remembered it for the past year or so. I figured if it was on my mind that long I should just buy it already.
    I purchased it as an eBook when I got my nook and enjoyed it. It isn't a life changing book, but it's an interesting read - so it serves its purpose.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2010

    A good book to read

    "Her Last Death" starts out with an early morning phone call from Susanna's aunt telling her that her mother has been involved in a bad car accident and is in a coma. As early as the age of 8 Susanna's mom talked openly to her daughter about her sex life and would seduce her boyfriends. With her mother as her "role model" she too became like her mother by having an affair with her high school English teacher, and multiple college boyfriends. When meeting her husband Christopher she was able to leave behind a lifestyle like her mothers and lead a life of bliss. Over all I didn't really like the book. It was hard for me to connect to the main character in the book and I didn't really feel that she had that hard of a life. I liked how the author was descriptive in what was going on so it was easy to paint a picture in your head. The author's writing style in the book was descriptive and well written. If you like memoirs about people's crazy and abnormal childhood then this is a book for you. If you like "The Glass Castle" then this is a book for you. I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2010

    Good Memoir

    This memoir was good to OK. I don't remember it being too memorable but I did like it ok.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Her Last Death!

    A book I recommend is Her Last Death. It was a really good book, at times it got sad and you have to be prepared for it. But I wish the book didnt end the way it ended. Its about a mom who wanted her kids to be her friends instead of her children, but the mom changed from being friends with her children to being a mother and then back again. The mom talked to her kids about sex and drugs. The mom taught her girls what to look for in a man even at the age at 9. She also lied saying she got raped or that she had sex with her childs crush. She just wasnt a good mom, but she tryed. In the end you find out that Susanna (the author)does not want to be her mother. She gets married and has two kids, she just wants to be what a mother/wife should be to her own kids and her husband. I absolutely loved the book! I would read it again. During the book, you just want to scream at the girl (Susanna)or her mom, and say how dump and incompetent that is.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2008

    Read if you are bored!

    This was entertaining at times, but I couldn't help thinking what did the mother do that was SO wrong? I mean, the mother is odd and made lots of mistakes, and isn't the mother I would want to be, but it wasn't THAT bad and the author just dwells on it all! It's like 'get over it!'

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2008

    Great first book

    Enjoyed account of this woman's life.growing up with an over the top narcisstic mother..Some of the story was almost hard to believe..if you enjoy non fiction this is a great read..

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2008

    Could barely make it through!!

    I barely made it through this book. Much of the book is focused on her mother's sex life and then her own. I can understand hearing about some of it to make a point, but I thought it was too much of the story and kept thinking...'who cares???' I am so not a prude, but I just didn't think there was much to this book. Very disappointing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 12, 2008

    Awesome novel!

    This book is beautifully written and stirs up so many emotions inside of me. I literally dreaded finishing it and look forward to another book by this writer.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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