Reading Sara Review: All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews


Paperback: 330 pages
Publisher: McSweeney’s (July 28, 2015)
Reading Sara Rating: 8/10

Rating for Secret Wisdom

Reading Sara Review: I realize that this is my third 8/10 review in a row – either I am in an optimistic reading mood, or I have just been extremely lucky reading great books lately.

All My Puny Sorrows was recommended to me by my friend Jessica, and she was absolutely right to recommend it to me before even finishing it herself! We were both instantly drawn in by the lovely cover design but held captive by the incredible writing of Toews and the way that she expertly tells a remarkable and sad story.

All My Puny Sorrows is about two sisters, Elf and Yoli. The narrative goes back and forth in time, talking about their childhood growing up in a strict Mennonite-community in Canada, to present day. Elf is now a famous concert pianist who is desperately struggling with her will to live. Yoli, divorced with two children, is trying to keep the family together and strong – and struggling with critical decisions about how to help her sister.

The topic of depression is difficult to write about but even harder to write a heart-warming, loving, and sometimes even funny, book – Toews does this expertly. It is impossible not to feel the weight of Elf’s desperation, while also staying acutely aware of the rest of the family and the impact that it has on them.

Because the book is written from Yoli’s perspective, we are still looking at depression from the outside in. We still want Yoli to fight for her sister, for her family, because we see the pain that it is causing everyone. I wonder how this story would be different from Elf’s perspective. I believe that it would be equally full of love, but would show an entirely different side of depression – one that is not trying to hurt the family, but merely make her hurt go away.

I loved the side commentary about the health care system and the faults that lie within in it when dealing with mental health. Apparently even in Canada they have not perfected this. Yoli compares it to being at the hospital for heart surgery – and how much better they take care of the patients who have something physically wrong. The matters of the head have never been treated equally, or as openly, as the issues within the rest of our bodies.

Because my words cannot accurately depict the beauty of the writing, here are a few of my favorite quotes:

“Dan wanted me to stay. I wanted Elf to stay. Everyone in the whole world was fighting with somebody to stay. When Richard Bach wrote “If you love someone, set them free” he can’t have been directing his advice at human beings.”

“It was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem. She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”


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