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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 29.
- Review Date: 2007-12-17
- Reviewer: Staff
When Dahlia Finger—a 29-year-old, pot-smoking, chronically underachieving Jewish-American princess—learns that she has brain cancer, the results are hilarious and heartbreaking in Albert’s superb first novel (following the story collection How This Night Is Different). Opening in the Venice, Calif., cottage to which Dahlia has retreated, at her father’s expense, after unsuccessfully trying to forge a life in New York, chapter one begins with the omniscient narrator’s scathingly Edith Wharton–worthy catalogue of Dahlia’s symptoms and ends with her first grand mal seizure. As Dahlia endures blistering radiation, sits numbly through her support group, smokes medical marijuana (with her crisis-reunited divorced parents) and carries a condescending book called It’s Up to You: Your Cancer To-Do List, Albert masterfully interweaves Dahlia’s battle with flashbacks, most tellingly involving her complexly overbearing Israeli mother, Margalit (“who unceremoniously imploded the family decades earlier”), and contemptuous older brother, against whom Dahlia has never learned to defend herself. Throughout, Albert delivers Dahlia’s laissez-faire attitude toward other people (men especially) and lack of ambition with such exactness as to strip them of cliché and make them grimly vivid. Her brilliant style makes the novel’s central question—should we mourn a wasted life?—shockingly poignant as Dahlia hurtles toward death. (Mar.)
Whistling in the dark
Elisa Albert's 2006 collection of short stories, How This Night Is Different, established her as a sharp, welcome literary voice. In her first novel, The Book of Dahlia, she turns her pen toward death itself.
Albert's brother died of cancer while she was in college, and that experience informs this story of the final months of 29-year-old Dahlia Finger. Dahlia, drifting through life on her couch, suddenly has something happen to her: an inoperable brain tumor. As she faces the hereafter with bravado and a healthy level of bitterness, she recounts the events of her life, including its heartbreaks and failures. And as the book of Dahlia's life nears its end, we arrive at an image of death that is bare, authentic and deeply affecting.
Irreverent and witty, The Book of Dahlia is perfectly executed. The prose bounces smartly and acutely as the characters reach us with their failures and potential. The third person narration hovers closely around Dahlia; there's a feeling that this narrator, without biasing itself, loves her. Or maybe it's just that the reader does. Dahlia is flawed and funny and caustic, consumed with all that is wrong in her world. It's that willingness to really feel that makes her a perfect heroine, vulnerable and invulnerable at the very same time.
The book succeeds in its most important goal: to point a finger at the culture of death and dying, with all its gerbera daisies and macrobiotics and positive thinking. Watching Dahlia interact with this world brings about realizations about the way we live and the way we approach death. Soon after her diagnosis, Dahlia notices that there are three types of people: those who cower from death; those who approach the subject carefully and ineptly; and those "who can stare into the lonely, mysterious everlasting right alongside you." The intimacy of Dahlia's story makes us desperately desire to be the third type, the person with the courage to really grieve.
Jessica Inman writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.