A drunk father and an emotionally abusive mother create an environment in which the narrator, a young girl, must take care of her younger siblings while withstanding the pains of a family that blames her for all of their problems. In time, the narrator grows and estranges herself from her family, despite repeated attempts to rekindle a relationship that ends in shame and slander. After a disastrous first marriage, she meets Paul, an heir to a family golf course business who falls fast in love with her. Paul, too, has his family demons, stemming mostly from his mother Zelda who is equally abusive as the narrator's mother. They temper their excitement and have trysts in passing, neither one capable of deep emotional commitment after their troubled pasts, but eventually their passion overwhelms them. They flee together, leaving the east coast to head to Arizona together, leaving behind the pain of their lives, but their happiness is not meant to last.
Paul is diagnosed with cancer, a symptom of his exposure to a great deal of mercury while working on his family's golf courses. As his condition deteriorates, it places a strain on their marriage, but one that they are determined to overcome. Through bouts of chemotherapy and hospital stays, their love stays strong despite it being a constant financial drain. Finally, Paul makes a decision and heads home to die with his family rather than be a burden on his wife. No sooner does he arrive that Paul regrets his decision and begs his wife to join him and bring him home, but by the time she gets there it's too late, and Paul has passed. Now she must grieve on her own, with two sets of hostile family members and then on her own in the undeveloped Arizona countryside. As she attempts to go through the motions of her day in the hot Southwestern summer, she stumbles into a recipe for making a papier-mache bowl, and in so doing begins a long daily task of making a vessel to contain her previously insurmountable grief.
This story features a great deal of true-to-life scenarios that people will deal with during and after the passing of a loved one. Written initially on the subject of Narrative Therapy, the author holds a Master’s in both Public Health and Social Work, blending the professional expertise and study of the effects of grief with the human realities of it that all people share, including the main character. The story can be difficult at times because of all of the hardships and abuse leveled at the main character from what is supposed to be a safe institution in family. Still, for those that have dealt with a troublesome family, the actions and words portrayed in this story will ring painfully true and honest. Capturing the throes of loss and longing following the death of a loved one is no small feat, and it is laid bare for all to see on these pages in excruciating detail. This is a difficult, sometimes painful book to read, but like all of the challenges in life, it serves to make the reader better prepared for what lies ahead.
Of course, it is misleading to paint the story as a never-ending cloud of gloom, as there are certainly happy moments, both during the blossoming of the love between the main characters and also at the end of the book, where peace is found even among the loneliest of moments. This is a story about struggle and ordeal, however, and so the conflict more than the characters is often the centerpiece focus from chapter to chapter. The reason, or more accurately, the definition of that ordeal, is what is revealed over time through the course of this story.
While the circumstances or causes behind such things are so often deeply personal, it is the sacrifice made by the main character, stepping willingly in front of the freight train that is cancer, and continuing to care for her husband, holding on to love and out for hope against odds, because of the nature and intensity of that love that is a universal burden. Death is eventual, but choosing to stand by someone facing it is a painful task that one elects to take on out of love and support. It is these themes that are so powerful and prevalent in this work. Whether a girl becoming a woman fighting against both those who raised her and those she raised or two people in love trying to square off against the inevitability of death, there is always a battle raging between the storytellers and a force that seems incomprehensible in scope and reason. All of these things work together to create a better understanding of how to cope, how to accept, and how to move forward.
Indeed, for those looking to more directly receive therapy from this story or just further explore one of the central themes given life off of the page, a second book, Papier-mâché Bowls: Vessels of Grieving, is included after the story. This book contains the recipe and instructions for making the Papier-mâché bowls featured near the end of the story, followed by 42 full-color photographs of various bowls created by the author during her own grief, each with various styles, motifs, and methods of creation. The collection of these two books together is a blend of imagination in the fictional story and then reality in the physical creation of the bowls discussed prior. It imparts a sense of urgency in physical doing of things to move behind shock and grief rather than a passive role in the audience, creating a new routine both to move beyond yet pay respect to the departed routines of old.
RECOMMENDED by the US Review