All My Puny Sorrows is a poignant novel about sisters, creativity, depression and suicide. Toews touches on a number of big themes in her story but questions of control– by outside forces, over one’s life, creativity and even death– are the center of the narrative. We tend to admire and support the person who resists oppressive control from outside forces such as patriarchy and religion, the person whose creative force and innovation set her apart. But what if that person also resists more conventional societal norms? What if she chooses to exit life? Using both humor and pain, Toews confronts the reader with the questions of how do you live (and create) and what should you do if you want to “support” someone you love. Keep her alive or help her die?
The story is told from the point of view of Yolandi Von Reisen, writer of a once popular YA series about “Rodeo Rhonda.” Yoli also happens to be the younger sister of world renowned concert pianist Elfreida (Elf) Von Reisen. The girls grew up in Winnipeg in a Mennonite community that had restrictive and old fashioned views about women; they should not be educated as that would make them “wild,” and music was discouraged. The girls’ father was a bit of an oddball in the community, an object of derision and bullying. When the story opens, the family is watching their home, which their parents had built, being towed away to make room for a car dealership; the elders had convinced the father that not to support the expansion of a fellow Mennonite’s business would be sinful. The girls’ mother had very different feelings about this, but as a good wife, she obeyed and supported her husband. She did, however, also support Elf’s education and musical talent, much to the horror of the community, and the father went along. Elf’s talents put her at at genius level; she received awards and scholarships and by the age of 17, she left Winnipeg to study abroad. Eventually Yoli went to university as did their mother, who studied social work and therapy.
The main story takes place in the contemporary world; Elf and Yoli are in their 40s, their father is dead and their mother is still in Winnipeg. Yoli is raising two teens in Toronto and is trying to get through a divorce. Her writing career has stalled and she is struggling to write a more literary novel and move away from Rodeo Rhonda. Elf is also struggling. Her career and reputation are stellar; she can fill concert halls anywhere and has a tour coming up. Yet Elf has tried to kill herself and is hospitalized in Winnipeg. Moreover, this is not Elf’s first suicide attempt. Yoli goes to her, and over the course of weeks and months, tries to help and support her sister, but she realizes there is a big problem:
She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.
Yoli, her mother, her Aunt Tina and Elf’s husband Nic do their best to help Elf, to keep her alive and convince her to want to live. Nic keeps hoping that modern medicine will provide the pharmaceutical to help Elf want to stay alive. The mother seems to hope that support will see her through and maybe she’ll just snap out of her depression. Yoli, in one brutal but realistic scene, yells at Elf for being so selfish and not seeing what a great life she has.
Toews’ descriptions of behavioral health interventions are done very well, showing how poor the level of support is for psychiatric patients. The psychiatrist is a jerk; when Elf refuses to speak and instead writes out her thoughts on paper, he refuses to “play that game” and won’t meet with her at all. The nurses tell the family not to bring Elf food and make her go to the community dining area, and they will not allow a phone in her room or bring a phone to her when family calls. She must get up and go to the commons area. Elf, asserting her own independence and self control, refuses to comply. More alarming, though, is that Elf can release herself from the hospital (she voluntarily checked herself in) and staff cannot stop her from going, and there is no team to support her upon release. Yoli, her mother and Nic live in fear of what will happen next if Elf gets out. After a run-in with the psychiatrist, Yoli wonders, “If you won’t help her, who will?” But Elf has already made it clear whose help she wants: Yoli’s to help her obtain an assisted suicide in Switzerland.
While having painful discussions with Elf about life and death, Yoli also has some unexpectedly helpful conversations with her mother and a local mechanic, who gives her the best writing advice of her life:
…it should just move really fast …so it doesn’t get boring…. You want to get in, get the job done, and get out.
He goes on to compare writing to cleaning septic tanks– don’t linger over it! Her mother also recommends just getting on with it. She says that it always concerned her how sad some of Yoli’s characters were in the Rodeo Rhonda books; she doesn’t care for stories where it’s established on page one that the protagonist is sad and then the rest of the book is about all the ways that person is sad. She says, Gimme a break! Get on with it!
As with writing, so with life. And so we the reader and Yoli are left with the question of what to do for Elf: help her live or help her die? Toews handles this with a deft touch and provides an ending that still leaves many interesting questions about Elf, Yoli, their family and the decisions that they have made. Depression, suicide and assisted suicide would be unavoidable topics if this book were part of a group discussion, but this is also a book about creativity and the artist and how one just gets on with it.