I’ve been in a restless reading mood, and didn’t want to delve into any of the many novels on my teetering to-be-read stack, so despite my resolves to read what I have instead of buying more books to pile on my desk with good intentions, I wandered around Borders the other day after buying some new walking shoes. Picked up a memoir, Carole Radziwill’s What Remains, and brought it home, made a cup of tea and started reading.
I cannot remember when I have been so haunted by a book. I finished yesterday and last night awakened thinking of it in the middle of the night. The surprising thing is that there are no surprises. We know as we begin that a young woman is waiting for her husband to die of cancer, and her best friend and the friend’s husband are tragically killed in an airplane crash. What follows is the story of everything that leads up to that moment.
Sounds grim, no? It isn’t. It’s warm and honest, straightforward and clear-sighted and somehow compulsively readable; a musing on the braid of fortune and sorrow that is the fabric of every life.
Hauntingly beautiful, and highly, highly recommended for those of you who enjoy memoirs as much as I do.
ADDITION, later: I’m still thinking about this memoir. Why? The author has a great voice, which is a given. Memoirs don’t work without a strong voice. Radziwill worked for the news, heading out to Cambodia and Montana and various spots around the globe for stories, which is a life I once thought was my dream. I loved the humanizing aspect of "meeting" people who have been in the news (her best friend is Carolyn Kennedy, who died with her husband JFK Jr in that plane crash).
But none of that is what sticks with me. I woke up thinking what it would be like in that between time when you start to worry if the accident really happened or if you are just imagining things. She captured it so concisely, with such particular attention to detail–Post Its on the wall of the kitchen chronicling the calls she’s made to trace their journey. The phone calls. The slow thickness of time at such moments.
I learned a lot about how cancer moves. It humanized and made real something we don’t really like to think about. Or maybe you are not as squeamish as I am, and you’re able to unblinkingly consider the path of such a wretched disease ("He is going to die a terrible death," says one doctor, matter of factly, looking at x-rays). My sister deals with it every day, all the time, as an oncology nurse, and although she was my hero before this, she is even more now that I have some tiny understanding of what she is doing. I’m proud of her for being there, for wanting to make people comfortable when they’re so very ill, and having been the recipient of her tenderness, I know how great her cool hands feel. I liked Radziwill for showing up, not running away, and being real about how very difficult it was.
But I think most of all, I identified with Radziwill strongly, as I was also raised in a working class world surrounded by a host of eccentrics. There is an intriguing examination of class structure in America here. I’ve dealt with it often in my own life, and I see my eldest son dealing with it on a much larger scale as a student at a major law school who came from the wild wild west, and tells genuinely bizarre (to us) stories of the structure and ideas he encounters. We want America to be this vast land of opportunity (and I am proof that it is), but there are also powerful, distinctive divides between classes, and Radziwill explores that in subtle and intriguing ways.
Bottom line is, I loved this book and wanted to rave about it. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and that deserves discussion here on a blog about books and writers.
What was the last book you read that moved you this way?
2 thoughts on “Haunting memoir”
I read this book when it first came out and I still feel it, mainly because I’m reminded of it every day–just across the narrow street where I work is Lee Radziwill’s apartment. It was also the first time I “got” how terrible cancer is. But you’re right, it wasn’t depressing at all–I loved reading about her childhood, those wild summers in New York, and I appreciated that someone who really knew and loved Carolyn Bessette could refute the cool blonde image the press has pushed onto us.
I read this back to back with Marian Fontana’s “A Widow’s Walk,” about the loss of her firefighter husband on September 11. It’s just as touching, funny and haunting.
I adored Russo’s new book “Bridge of Sighs”. At 50 plus I could really relate to the characters who are gazing back at the glorious, confusing, hectic time of their youth. It’s about who launches themselves into the world beyond their small hometown, who stays rooted there always, and what is gained and lost with those choices. Masterfully written, with great tenderness and humor.