Uneven chick lit romance but Oprah Winfrey liked it

By David Herman, May 22, 2012

The Grief of Others, by Leah Hagar Cohen, The Clerkenwell Press, £12.99

Leah Hagar Cohen

Leah Hagar Cohen

On Page 273, one character picks up a book, “a romance novel, one of seven she has brought. She consumes one every two days.” The Grief of Others is itself one part romance novel, two parts chick lit. It includes three affairs, two unwanted pregnancies, one runaway child, numerous dead parents and siblings, a miscarriage and a brief moment of soft-core incest. All in 370 pages. No wonder it was an Oprah Pick.

Set in suburban Westchester, Cohen’s novel tells the story of the Ryries, an apparently average, dysfunctional, middle-class family. Ricky is in her late 30s and is a “financial engineer” working in derivatives in White Plains. She is the main breadwinner. Her husband, John, works in theatre-design in a nearby college. Big, burly and benign, he would ideally be played by John Goodman in a movie version.

They have two troubled children.Paul is a teenager, “overweight, acned, awkward”, bullied and lonely at school. Elizabeth (known as “Biscuit”) is 10, secretive, and plays truant. All are in mourning for Simon Isaac, a baby who has just died, alive for only 57 hours. All have their painful, half-hidden secrets. The dominant mood is melancholy, mournful. It is hardly surprising that, at the one party in the novel, someone puts on Leonard Cohen.

Two more troubled young people then enter their lives. Jess is John’s daughter from a previous relationship, who suddenly turns up to stay with the Ryries and immediately unleashes a bombshell. Gordie, 19, is orphaned and living alone with his dog. His father has just died from cancer at 54, leaving behind a home full of clutter and some eerily beautiful dioramas.

So, the Ryrie family, already close to falling apart from its own internal tensions and problems, now has to cope with two more difficult youngsters.

The Grief of Others is readable, moving back and forward in time, full of warmth and Cohen is a good storyteller. But she is an uneven writer. On the one hand, there are descriptions like these of baby Simon: “His hands like sea creatures curled and stretched”, “‘His toenails: specks of abalone”. But, once into her stride, Cohen writes good, sharp dialogue, builds a scene well and neatly captures her characters’ suburban world.

This is possibly the least Jewish novel you will ever read, even though a few pages are dedicated to an Isaac Leib Peretz story. One of the problems all the characters face is that they are cut adrift in suburban America, rootless, connected neither to each other nor to their own feelings, for all the intensity of their various secrets.

David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 11:04am, May 22 2012