Considering 2004’s A Complicated Kindness, it is clear that Miriam Toews is a woman who understands entrapment. A Complicated Kindness is about a teenage girl who struggles with her identity inside the oppressive Mennonite world. Her community inhibits her individuality, and the overwhelming control dominates the girl’s life. Now, in her latest (and best) novel, All My Puny Sorrows, Toews presents a similar situation. This time, though, things are even direr.
Yolandi “Yoli” and Elfrieda “Elf” Von Riesen are sisters who couldn’t be more different. Yoli is a struggling writer. She has little money. She’s not very pretty. The one thing she craves is “true love,” but everyone knows it’ll never happen. Elf is a master-pianist, married to a good man, rich, and by most accounts, a beautiful woman. You probably think that Yoli might be the one struggling with the idea of life—or living, but it’s Elf who can’t seem to find anything worth living for.
Elf isn’t just a woman who fights with depression—this is a woman who very much struggles to exist in an entire world that she can’t bear. Her issues with life are serious. When speaking with Yoli about what she wants most in life, Elf emphatically declares, “Death!”
All My Puny Sorrows is about how we approach life when we don’t want to live it. It sounds sad—maybe too sad, and, really, it is for segments; however, Toews knows how to create a story, and she adds just enough humor to make the whole thing digestible.
Toews begins her narrative by detailing the childhood of Yoli and Elf. The girls live in a Mennonite community. At home, they face creative struggles because being different is bad in such an environment. This limit on creativity is especially difficult for Elf, who wants nothing more than to tell jokes, be sarcastic, and play her piano. Yoli wants to encourage her sister and champion her talents. One thing going for Elf is the fact that her family—not just Yoli—truly supports her. They want her to be happy and to find her escapism, even if it creates a stigma around the family.
And a stigma is what the family gets. Heads of the community visit the Von Riesen house often, proclaiming a non-acceptance of Elf’s eccentricities. Elf and Yoli’s father becomes a target for the leader’s disdain. He isn’t manly enough. He doesn’t have enough control over his family. Eventually, the pressure is too much, and he takes his own life, leaving the two girls and their mother to adjust to life.
The adult sisters are very much the same as their younger selves. Elf is still the talent, about to begin a worldwide tour. Yoli is still the encouragement. Then, Elf attempts suicide and winds up in the hospital. Yoli says about Elf, “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”
While it’s true that Elf experiences the most literal cases of entrapment. She’s the one who’s locked in a hospital, and she’s also the one who explicitly states how life is not for her. However, Yoli is the one who, perhaps, faces the greatest challenges. She has to figure out how to be strong, how to continue supporting her sister, and how to find comfort in her sister’s unbendable decision to take her own life.
In one particularly moving conversation, Yoli pleads with Elf to stop her attempts: “So why don’t you just wait for it to happen. Exercise some patience and all your dreams will come true. Guaranteed.” Yoli wants to understand her sister, but she can’t—and that’s from where most of her pain stems: no matter how hard she might try, she can’t save her sister.
All of this sounds very grim, but I said there is humor. And, there are moments of spectacular hilarity. When Elf returns to the hospital after another suicide attempt, a Mennonite preacher comes to visit her. He wants to save her. Elf, though, knows that she doesn’t want—and can’t—be saved. She begins reciting a poem to the preacher, and he leaves “pretty quickly.” Yoli asks Elf why a poem made the man bail. Elf replies, “Because by the end of it I had taken off all my clothes.” Yes, Elf is an amazing character, with zingers like this one throughout the novel.
Mixed with heartbreak and quiet, tender insights into life, All My Puny Sorrows is a novel about sisters who battle with love, faith, acceptance, and—yes—even suicide.