All My Puny Sorrows; Miriam Toews

All My Puny Sorrows book cover

All My Puny Sorrows; Miriam Toews
| published February 27, 2015 |

Book review by Kristy Webster
Thursday Review contributor

As young girls, Yoland, (“Yoli”) and Elfrieda, (“Elf”) are often scrutinized and vilified by Mennonite elders who visit the family’s home to chastise their parents—their mother, a sharp-tongued, intelligent woman and their father, a solemn, sensitive soul—for behavior they deem inappropriate. This only strengthens Elf’s will and feeds her rebellious spirit; the tight grip of the church serving as a creative catalyst launching her into a full blown piano prodigy who tours Europe at a young age. Meanwhile, Yoli, the younger sister and our narrator has almost managed to make a living writing rodeo books for young adults, finds herself in her early forties, twice married, twice divorced with two teenage children.

Elf is living a dream life as a successful, highly esteemed and revered concert pianist married to a man who adores her, while Yoli’s life is something of a hot mess. Yet it is Elf, whose wild talent has fascinated multitudes, who is the one who has made several attempts on her life, and it is Yoli who is determined to convince her sister to live.

Miriam Toews handles the very taboo subject of suicide and suicidal tendencies with supreme understanding, grace and even humor. Undoubtedly, this is because while All My Puny Sorrows is a categorized as a fictitious novel, it is based on the actual events in Toew’s family. Her sister was a world famous pianist who took her life in 2010, a decade after their father had done the same.

Though this book sheds a light on mental illness and suicide, it’s surprisingly not a morbid read whatsoever. Toew’s sharp wit and observation keeps the reader engaged without feeling emotionally burdened. Though it can be heartbreaking at times, All My Puny Sorrows is also reaffirming and beautifully written.

At the heart of the book is the friendship and camaraderie between two very different sisters and the lingering truth that we can’t always save the ones we love, especially from themselves.

So far this is my favorite novel of the past year, and I am pleased to discover the talent of Miriam Toews.  I plan to voraciously read her other works.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Battleborn; Claire Vaye Watkins; review by Kristy Webster; Thursday Review; February 26, 2015.

Wonder; RJ Palacio; book review by Kristy Webster; Thursday Review; November 3, 2014.