Sunday, February 19, 2012

Unhappy Families

Did you know that there is something called the Anna Karenina principle? (What did we do before Wikipedia?). It derives from the famous Tolstoy line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. In statistics this is translated to mean “there are any number of ways in which a dataset may violate the null hypothesis and only one in which all the assumptions are satisfied”. In ecology it is used to explain the fragility of ecosystems, since the failure of any one element can cause the entire system to fail.

And what does all this have to do with Leah Hager Cohen's The Grief of Others? Well, it is certainly about an unhappy family. Each member of the Ryrie family – parents Rickie and John, teenager Paul and his younger sister Biscuit - is unhappy for a different reason, and a shared tragedy serves to isolate them from each other even more. Perhaps in a happy family the members would mourn together a loss that has touched them all (the birth and rapid death of a severely damaged infant), but because there were already fissures in the relationships, each is pulled farther apart, and their lack of communication causes these fundamentally decent people to hurt each other.

Cohen takes time to unfold the complicated layers of each of her characters, so I found each one sympathetic even as I winced at their mistakes. The slow rebuilding of trust is unforced and powerful. Cohen tackles an extremely difficult subject and presents it honestly. I know this sounds depressing but I found this book moving and ultimately hopeful.

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