jo's Reviews > Torch

Torch by Cheryl Strayed
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's review
Mar 05, 12

really liked it
Read from February 26 to March 01, 2012

i'm kind of moved to see so many people review this now that cheryl strayed has finally told us she is sugar of the rumpus (she "came out" on valentine's day, 2012). sugar is so much loved, so much justly loved, that her readers are flocking to her books and her articles to read more by her.

if you have followed sugar's advice columns (and they are NOT ordinary advice columns: they are masterpieces of wisdom, wit, beauty, and life) this book won't entirely surprise you. it belongs with the same philosophy of hard knocks sugar embraces (though she's also much more!). in her columns sugar is much warmer and more positive than she is here, but this was written some time ago, and this is her life, and she is entitled to as much bitterness as she wants to put on the page.

there is this 2002 article in The Sun Magazine that covers the same emotional and historical territory cheryl strayed covers here. i suggest you read it after reading the book, not only because it gives the book away, but because it's more powerful and more beautiful than the book (it's truly astounding) and it'll ruin the book for you.

so here's my fantasy, my pure uneducated speculation about cheryl strayed: when she was young her mom died really really fast, and the pain that hit her when her mom died was a pain she didn't even know could exist. it was a pain so ferocious, so corrosive, so annihilating, she felt she couldn't survive and probably her feeling was accurate. but she did survive it, somehow. she didn't survive it very well or very tidily, but she lived. on many occasions (my fantasy goes) she cursed the fact that she was alive. on many occasions she railed against the fact that she couldn't die. because she really, really, REALLY wanted to die. she wanted to die more badly than she wanted anything. yet she couldn't. she was stuck in this here life and that sucked so majorly, she tried to make a mess of this life that was entrapping her as rigorously as she could.

but her mom had made a terrific job of raising her and she was too good and too sane to fuck it all up.

so, at some point, reluctantly, painfully, heroically, she resumed living. and then, because the pain, though it had lessened its bite somewhat, was still not going away, she decided to exorcise it by putting it all into writing. this was, after all, who she was. she was a writer. so cheryl decided to write her way out of her massive, horrible, icy cold, hell-hot pain.

in the novel, the characters are a bit of a composite of various aspects of cheryl's pain as described in the Sun article. here are three aspects of this book i want to focus on:

1. cheryl strayed is a fantastic writer. she sees things very deeply and puts them on the page in such a way that you see them deeply too. she finds words for the most difficult, the most impossible, the most intangible things. also, she uses adjectives quite spectacularly. if i thought this denomination made any sense, i'd say she's a writer's writer. but here's something that does make sense: if you want to write, read cheryl strayed and learn how to compose sentences and paragraphs and narrative structures. study her. she has it down pat.

2. this book does not let up. it doesn't let up from page one. you'd figure CS would portray the mother who is soon to die as someone special and lovable. but: no. the kids are annoyed at her. the kids are embarrassed by her. the kids are kids who have outlived their enchantment with their mother and are totally ready to live a life of their own to which anger at their mom is at this time (they are respectively 17 and... 20?) essential. in the normal course of events they would eventually stop being mad at their mom and would bond with her. but mom dies and they are stuck in rageland.

3. now, you would expect the kids to feel guilty. i know i would. i would feel AWFUL for every single time i failed to show her love and kindness. i would worry over those moments like an obsessed and possessed person. not these kids. maybe because they are minnesotan kids and they are raised to keep their feelings as locked up as they possibly can, they spend the whole book failing to connect: to themselves, to each other. (view spoiler) grief leaves these people decimated and while they could help each other restore each other to wholeness, they don't. there are about two million moments in which someone is about to say something that you feel could change things, start a dialogue. invariably, he or she bites it back. this is the book of missed connections. connecting moments present themselves and are allowed to pass over and over and over. it can drive you mad.

these three characters, father, son, and daughter, so damn alone with their devastating pain. and since you never see them truly appreciate the woman they have lost (well, the father does; he loved her, though you don’t see exactly what they had), you don't even quite know why they are suffering so much. you want to scream: did you even like this woman???? THEN TELL US WHY!

maybe if they were able to name, to themselves and to each other, why mom is so fucking missable; if they were capable of tracing the contours of the hole she left behind, they could find some solace. but they seem to be able to do just about zero emotional work. you follow them through the book at their most bereft and lost and directionless.

i liked this book very much. i was sorry it ended. i could have read twice as much of it. the writing is magnificent and in literature this is 90% of the joy. what i want to say is that there is an intrinsic redemptive value in beauty and art, and, while the characters of this novel stumble through life in a fog, you don't. you can name all they cannot name. you process the pain through the beauty of the writing. you are given clear and deep vision.
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Reading Progress

02/26 "i'm so happy to be reading this book. sugar, y'all!"
03/02 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by jo (new) - rated it 4 stars

jo thank you, elizabeth. if you have a chance, read the Sun article. it's phenomenal.

Wilhelmina Jenkins When my father died, I was 23. Massive heart attack; no indication of illness; I found his body. It suddenly became quite clear to me why people want to throw themselves into the grave with their loved one. I want to read this, just not right now.

message 3: by jo (new) - rated it 4 stars

jo yikes, mina. quite a story. i don't know how one get over stuff like that. i guess one really doesn't.

Wilhelmina Jenkins I haven't. That was 1973.

message 5: by jo (new) - rated it 4 stars

jo so sorry.

Jennifer (aka EM) I want to read this too, but I am afraid of what will come up. Your review moved me to tears, jo. It is beautiful.

message 7: by Avril (new) - added it

Avril Wonderful review, thank you!

message 8: by jo (new) - rated it 4 stars

jo thank you avrillight, and a belated thank you to you too, jen.

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