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A young widow's triumphant journey through grief
During the first few months of Sophie Stanton's life as a widow, she goes to work dressed in her bathrobe, finds herself sobbing in the produce section of her local grocery store and is crippled with fear by the pattern on her shower curtain.
It is safe to say she is deep in mourning over her husband, Ethan, who died of cancer, leaving behind a 30-something wife with no idea how to move past such a loss and the deep loneliness it has left in its wake.
"Now I understand why rock stars wreck hotel rooms," thinks Sophie as she stands alone in her kitchen, contemplating smashing every dish she owns. "To shatter the relentless stillness of a room."
Good Grief, the truly extraordinary debut novel by journalist Lolly Winston, trails Sophie through the first year of her widowhood. But this novel is anything but textbook Grief Recovery 101. It's different, because Winston has the nerve to admit that recovering from the death of a loved one is a ridiculous thing to have to do, and that it often has moments of humor mixed in with all the bad stuff. In Good Grief, we see Sophie through every messy stage, from denial to anger.
At first, she functions at the most primary level, sleeping for days and stuffing herself with Oreos until her mouth hurts. From there, Sophie moves on to bargaining with God. Maybe there was a clerical error, she thinks. Maybe the angel of death grabbed the wrong guy, and Ethan will be returned as soon as they straighten things out Upstairs. Finally realizing this isn't going to happen, and determined to make a fresh start away from the ghosts of the home she shared with Ethan, Sophie trades her soulless cubicle job in Silicon Valley for a fresh start in Ashland, Oregon, home of Shakespearean festivals and hippies of all ages.
Once there, she rents an overpriced but charming house and sets about her new life, which at first consists mainly of occasional panic attacks and a job prepping vegetables at a tony local restaurant. She spends her days at work and her nights cuddling with Ethan's old clothes.
But slowly, she settles into her new life. She takes on a teenage girl in desperate need of guidance and works her way up the chain of command at the restaurant. Then she meets a possibly too-good-to-be-true actor who just has to go ahead and complicate her purposefully simple existence.
Good Grief is strikingly originaland stunningly brave in its honest portrayal of moving on, warts and all. Winston acknowledges that the real mourning process is not a Jackie Kennedy photo: a perfect, brave widow wearing a wrinkle-free outfit as she says a final farewell to her husband. The details may vary, but in real life, mourning is sloppy and filled with setbacks and anger, too many calories and too little sleep.
And, yes, full of humor. Winston gives us such a lively gift of a character in Sophie, who, after her grief-stricken stupor starts to dissipate, turns out to be a touchingly normal person, alternately neurotic and strong. She worries that she'll betray her dead husband if she sleeps with another man. She finds the nerve to open her own bakery without ever having run a business in her life. In short, she gathers her life back together in a way that is both triumphant and unforgettable.
Good Grief marks the arrival of an exciting and ambitious new voice. Winston's story sparkles with wit and sympathy, but her musings on what it means to really liveeven in the shadow of deathare the true reward here.
Amy Scribner writes from Washington state.