A Canadian writer visits her older sister, a concert pianist who's just attempted suicide, in this masterful, original investigation into love, loss and survival. "She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other," Yolandi Von Riesen says of her sister, Elfrieda. Toews (Irma Voth, 2011, etc.) moves between Winnipeg, Toronto, and a small town founded by Mennonite immigrants who survived Bolshevik massacres, where the intellectual, free-spirited Von Riesen family doesn't share the elders' disapproval of "overt symbols of hope and individual signature pieces." Yoli looks back over time, realizing that the sisters' bond is strengthened by their painful memories. The girls' father baffles neighbors by supporting Elf's creative passions and campaigning to run a library. His suicide and absence from their adulthood make him even more important to his daughters as their paths diverge. Elf travels around Europe, emptying herself into Rachmaninoff performances; Yoli writes books about a rodeo heroine, feeling aimless and failed. Elf's husband appreciates her singular sensitivity as a performer, but this capacity for vulnerability dangerously underpins her many breakdowns and longstanding depression. Yoli's men are transient, leaving her with two children. Toews conveys family cycles of crisis and intermittent calm through recurring events and behaviors: Elf and her father both suffer from depression; Yoli and her mother face tragedy with wry humor and absurdist behavior; and two sisters experience parallel losses. Crisp chapter endings, like staccato musical notes, anchor the plot's pacing. Elf's determination to end her suffering by dying takes the form of a drumbeat of requests for Yoli to help her commit suicide. Readers yearn for more time with this complex, radiant woman who fiercely loves her family but cannot love herself. "Sadness is what holds our bones in place," Yoli thinks. Toews deepens our understanding of the pain found in Coleridge's poetry, which is the source of the book's title.
A New York Times 2015 Holiday Gift Guide selection.
A New York Times Editors' Choice selection.
A Slate Book Review Favorite Books of the Year selection.
A Boston Globe 'Best Fiction of 2014' Pick
One of Ms. Magazine's Great Reads for Fall 2014
its intelligence, its honesty and, above all, its compassion provide a kind of existential balma comfort not unlike the sort you might find by opening a bottle of wine and having a long conversation with (yes, really) a true friend.”
Curtis Sittenfeld, The New York Times Book Review
"In the crucible of [Miriam Toews'] genius, tears and laughter are ground into some magical elixir that seems like the essence of life." Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“[A] wrenchingly honest, darkly funny novel. (Grade: A)" Entertainment Weekly
"Bold, brash and big-hearted.... Toews writes from the point of view of Yoli, whose interior monologue reads like a cross between David Foster Wallace and Robin Williams if both were, in fact, a 40-something Mennonite woman with authority issues. She’s a smart aleck with heart, a philosopher with a comic’s timing." The Dallas Morning News
"Sisters should always want what is best for each other, but what if what one sister really wants is to end her life? This is the dilemma Yoli faces when her ethereal sister, Elf, attempts suicide. The beautiful Elf is a world-renowned pianist who’s in a loving relationship and about to start an international tour, but having it all doesn’t matter to her when she is drowning in despair. Yoli, as she rightfully points out, is the one struggling; she’s twice divorced, with children by two different fathers, and after having achieved some success as a YA series author (though she has nothing like Elf’s gifts), her career has stalled. But though she and Elf are closethe bond they forged while growing up in a conservative Mennonite town in Canada is central to the narrativedepression is hard to understand from the outside. VERDICT Despite the topic, this is not a dark novel. In fact, its gloom comes in the form of dark humor, and Toews (Irma Voth) does a wonderful job with her characters, none of whom are perfect, which makes them all the more real. It requires a talented author to take a serious subject and write such an engaging, enjoyable work.Library Journal (starred)
"Touching and unexpectedly humorous." Marie Claire
"[A] sad, wise, often funny and very good novel." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"'All My Puny Sorrows' is a bittersweet story about those who survive and those who can’t fight the current." Minneapolis StarTribune
"[A] triumph in its depiction of the love the sisters share."Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"[A] masterful, original investigation into love, loss and survival." Kirkus (Starred Review)
"All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews: The premise of Toews’s sixth novel, released to critical acclaim in Canada earlier this year, is simple and devastating: there are two adult sisters, and one of them wants to die. She’s a wildly successful and in-demand concert pianist, but she longs for self-annihilation. It’s a premise that could easily be grindingly unbearable, but Toews is a writer of considerable subtlety and grace, with a gift for bringing flashes of lightness, even humor, to the darkest of tales. (Emily)"The Millions
"Toews writes with a sharp and piercing eye, offering characters and descriptions which are so odd and yet so spot-on that the reader has to laugh, albeit reluctantly." Booklist
"A touching tribute and a captivating novel." BUST
"[Miriam Toews] has a wry, funny voice that is the readers’ steady companion. She also has an eye for the absurd and a perfect tragicomedic timing in delivery." Christian Century
“Toews is an extraordinarily gifted writer, with unsentimental compassion for her people and an honest understanding of their past, the tectonic shifts of their present and variables of their future.” The Globe and Mail
"Funny and irresistibly warm" BuzzFeed
"Toews infuses [All My Puny Sorrows] with humor and sympathy."
John Williams, NY1, The Book Reader
"A harrowing and often very funny novel ... Every page yields a surprise, a laugh, or a line that will make your breath catch in your throat." Dan Kois, Slate
"As jagged and ripped open as a freshly torn heart." The Boston Globe