Grief is a visitor who comes to each of us differently, but our appointment with loss is inevitable. In her first novel, TORCH, Cheryl Strayed addresses this universal theme with skill and unflinching compassion by creating exceptionally believable characters.
At the heart of the novel is Teresa Rae Wood, only 38 years old when she receives her cancer sentence in Duluth, Minnesota. The impact of this news on her and her common-law husband Bruce emerges slowly, in prosaic detail: first dinner in a Chinese restaurant, then pulling over to the side of the road on the way back to their small-town life. "They said the word, but as if it were two words. Can. Sir. They had to say it slowly, dissected, or not at all. They vowed they would not tell the kids. How could they tell the kids?" The kids, Joshua and Claire, are such convincing teenagers that the reader's fingers twitch at times with the urge to throttle them.
Bruce is not their biological father --- Teresa fled that abusive man when the children were small --- but for 12 years he has lived with their mother and been their dad. If our appointment with loss can't be avoided, the way we react is infinitely variable. Joshua, at 17, is embarrassed by his mother, and while he weeps when told she has cancer, his coping takes the form of skipping school and feigning sleep when his mother needs him. Claire interrupts her college life in Minneapolis to be there for her mother, and she's infuriated by her younger brother's irresponsibility. Bruce sticks to his carpentry jobs at first, but when Teresa enters the hospital, all pretense of normal life slips away. He and Claire take turns staying with Teresa in the hospital, keeping a vigil that is all too short, for all of them.
With admirable craft, Strayed fleshes out her characters by fully inhabiting each point of view. Teresa's memories of her first apartment above Len's Lookout, of Bruce meeting her children for the first time, of the playful ways she loved Claire, Joshua and Bruce all serve to make her someone whose loss we mourn. The details are precise, understated and devastating. "They drove past a farm where several cows stood in the bright light of the open barn, their heads turned toward the dark of the woods beyond, as if they detected something there that no human could. A thrashing." The metaphors are original and rich. "She...found that acceptance was not what she'd imagined it would be. It wasn't a room she could lounge in, a field she could run through. It was small and scroungy, in constant need of repair."
Teresa's death blows the fragile family apart, and the novel tracks each of them through their unconventional, often self-destructive mourning. Their respective journeys to acceptance are filled with bitterness, mistakes, resentment, and finally a kind of sad wisdom. Strayed weaves their separate stories into a satisfying narrative with a sure hand and a knowing heart, leaving us with a welcome note of redemption that feels entirely earned. In short, this is a very moving and accomplished novel about the torches we carry for those we lose too soon.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 23, 2011