by Lolly Winston, contemporary (2005)
Warner, $7.99, ISBN 0-446-61596-X
Don't be put off by the back blurb, which talks about how the grieving widow Sophie Stanton's life isn't like in the movies where she is swept off her feet by a man who looks like Sam Shepard, into believing that this is a bleak book about grief. The blurb is misleading because Sophie actually finds romance with a handsome actor and the ending is definitely not one that will drive one to drink. What this book offers is an exquisite and very realistic portrayal of a woman's grief in the wake of the passing of a beloved husband and how she finds the strength to move on with her life. What this book doesn't offer is over-the-top cheap sentimentality.
Sophie Stanton has been married to Ethan for three years until he finally succumbed to Hodgkin's disease three months ago. Good Grief chronicles a chapter in Sophie's life that spans from the third month since Ethan's passing to Thanksgiving a little more than a year after Ethan's passing. Along the way, she sinks into depression, loses her job, but manages in the end to find a way to move on with life without severing the ties to her past and Ethan.
I don't want to give any more details about the story because I don't know how to without spoiling the reader of the fun of discovering things for herself. All I can say is that the first half of the book is a draining, heartbreaking read, one which is also laugh-out-loud darkly funny at the same time. Sophie first experiences denial about her husband's passing, later she experiences grief and then bleak depression, and throughout Sophie's ordeal, Ms Winston paints a stark, poignant picture of grief where the occasional succor comes from Sophie's dry wit and scenes of dry humor (especially that scene that costs Sophie her job - hilariously morbid yet heartbreakingly depressive at the same time). Sophie is a very likeable heroine which makes my reading this book an even more enjoyable experience. Even when she is crippled from depression, her level-headed personality shines through. She is not a paragon but neither is she a passive victim - she comes off as a pleasant ordinary woman facing a truly difficult phase in her life.
Ms Winston does an excellent work in balancing the more realistic and difficult aspects of grief with humor that works without cheapening the difficulties that Sophie is experiencing. The story picks up considerably in terms of mood when Sophie finally starts to rebuild her life, and even then, the story keeps it real. Sophie's awkward attempts at dating, her yearning for physical intimacy versus her guilt - all these elements are portrayed in a humorous yet acutely realistic manner. Ms Winston therefore makes Sophie as real as possible to me, which makes Good Grief a powerful read because it has realistic, complicated emotions wrapped up and presented with a little romance and plenty of lift-me-up moments. It's like an above average episode of the now-cancelled TV series Once And Again, come to think of it, where it's all about realistic drama of life and love featuring characters that I can relate to and root for.
Of course, this book is not that real in the sense that Sophie discovers that she has a natural talent for baking that eventually allows her to have a successful new career in life and she finds a handsome man who, after the initial bump in the road to romance chick-lit style, is so slavishly desperate for her love that he comes off like a truly perfect fantasy antidote to every woman's blues. Not that there is anything wrong in such a fantasy, of course, I'm just making a point that fans of pleasant, uplifting dramas that don't shy away from complicated emotions would most likely find this book enjoyable because it is not the postmodern depressing anatomy of grief and bleakness that the back blurb and some of the glowing quotes on the front and back cover hint it to be.
There are some aspects of the story that have me not giving this book a keeper grade. Sophie's relationship with Ethan's mother, Marion, is wonderfully free from the typical "heroine and bitch mother-in-law" dramatics but their relationship is so underplayed that when this relationship takes a more prominent role later in the story, that subplot doesn't come off as well-fleshed as it should have been because of the underdeveloped foundations behind that relationship. I also find it hard to warm up to the stray troubled teenaged girl Crystal that eventually features prominently in Sophie's life because Crystal comes off as a stereotype, a rather unrealistically written one at that in the sense that Crystal often comes off as too precious and too obvious in a "Look at me! Aren't my one-liners funny? And witty?" manner.
Still, all is good with Good Grief at the end of the day because I have a weakness for well-written feel-good stories that take difficult situations and raw realistic emotions and spin a story of uplifting healing and happy endings from them. The lack of sugary sentimentalism is a bonus. Some of the scenes in this book are beautiful because they are not over-the-top melodramatic but rather because they are elegantly understated but real enough to resonate with me. Good Grief is a well-written example of books I'd love to read more often in my life - a story that flies high with inspirational feel-good drama and even romance while having one foot firmly on the ground when it comes to staring right into and honestly tackling the sometimes unpleasant, sometimes heartbreaking emotions and sentiments that arise in complicated and less-than-pretty situations in life. Affirmative and honest, Good Grief is the finest form of catharsis.
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