“When our children die,” wrote Henry Ward Beecher, “we drop them into the unknown, shuddering with fear. We know that they go out from us, and we stand, and pity and wonder.” For the fictional Jacobs family, the fear, pity and wonder they are experiencing after the death of their eldest daughter is compounded when another death --- that of a stranger --- happens in their own backyard. Parents Anders and Joan, 15-year-old Eve and seven-year-old Eloise are still deep in mourning for 17-year-old Sophie when they are drawn into the heartbreak and mystery surrounding the death of a young man named James Farvazza in Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop’s beautiful and poignant new novel, THE WHY OF THINGS.
"THE WHY OF THINGS is elegantly written, insightful and haunting. It is emotionally raw but never saccharine, tender but powerful, and well captures the feelings of sadness and uncertainty that follow deaths..."
Upon arriving at their summer house, Eve Jacobs notices tire tracks cutting across the yard and ending at the edge of the huge water-filled quarry on the property. She also observes bubbles rising to the surface. The police tow trucks, paramedics and divers soon arrive, but by the time 27-year-old James Farvazza is pulled from the quarry, still inside his pick-up truck, he is dead. How and why Farvazza ends up in the quarry becomes a bit of an obsession for Eve; she tries to understand the event, suspects foul play, collects evidence, and eventually begins to see that coming to terms with Farvazza’s death is a way of coming to terms with the death of her sister.
Meanwhile, other members of the Jacobs family are confronting the loss in their own ways. Anders finds an unexpected peace in a diving class, Eloise falls in love with a dog and worries about ghosts, and Joan has a few heart-wrenching encounters with Farvazza’s own grieving mother.
While readers come to learn the manner of Sophie’s death (just as they know about Farvazza’s), the reasons why (“the why of things”) are never made clear. They are not clear to the reader nor to the fictional characters, and so the crux of the emotional movement in the book is toward the realization that ultimately there will be no understanding. It is a bold and honest move on Winthrop’s part, and a successful one at that. This is a wonderful novel of loss and wonder, and Eve and Anders in particular are fascinating and exciting characters. The changes in them over the course of the story are craftily mirrored in the landscape they inhabit.
THE WHY OF THINGS is elegantly written, insightful and haunting. It is emotionally raw but never saccharine, tender but powerful, and well captures the feelings of sadness and uncertainty that follow deaths like those of Sophie and Farvazza --- but also the resilience and hopefulness that come, surprisingly and tentatively, to those left in their wake.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on June 14, 2013
The Why of Things