Title: Good Grief
Author: Lolly Winston
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library
First line: How can I be a widow?
This review was previously posted on my personal blog on May 26, 2008.
During the first year after her husband dies, Sophie fights her way out of depression and finds comfort in reaching out to a young girl in need of someone to believe in her. She finds a new vocation and deals with the perils of being single again and she takes us along for every hilarious, crazy moment.
I finished Good Grief by Lolly Winston today. I started it Thursday night, wanting something new to read when waiting at the doctor’s office Friday. This is not the book to take into a waiting room if you are at all embarrassed by crying or laughing out loud over a book in public. I picked this up on a whim at Barnes and Noble and I’m so glad.
Good Grief tells the story of Sophie Stanton, widowed at age 36.
How can I be a widow? Widows wear horn-rimmed glasses and cardigan sweaters that smell like mothballs and have crepe-paper skin and names like Gladys or Midge and meet with their other widow friends once a week to play pinochle. I’m only thirty-six. I just got used to the idea of being married, only test-drove the words my husband for three years: My husband and I, my husband and I… after all that time being single!
I think we all have an idea in our heads of what grieving looks like. I know that as Christians we have the hope of eternal life, and yet grieving is still a very real process. For some reason, people like to put a time limit on mourning: “It’s been a year now, shouldn’t she be moving on?” But grief is messy – no one moves through each stage in a neat little progression like the books would have us think.
On my way home from work that night, I get in an accident: I’m broadsided by the holidays. It happens when I stroll into Safeway and see the rows of tables by the door stacked high with Halloween candy: Milky Way, Kit Kat, Butterfinger. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Stop, turn, run! I try to shove my cart toward produce, but it won’t go. One stubborn wheel tugs like an undertow toward the candy. I kick the cart and focus on my shopping list: eggs, milk, ice cream.
I make it safely to produce, but there the pumpkins lurk. Look! they shout. The holidays are coming! I spot the bunches of brown corn you can hang on your door and the tiny gourds – the bumpy acne ones and the clown-striped green-and-yellow ones. I lean into the cart for support. How can a place called Safeway seem so dangerous?…
…”Miss?” A clerk clutching a bunch of basil stands beside me. “Are you okay?”
“Yes.” He said miss and not ma’am. Sweet. There are streaks of cranberry red spots on his cheeks, and his nose shines. I try to think of something to say, a vegetable to inquire after. Instead I blurt: “My husband died.” Maybe this is the first time I’ve said this. I’m not sure. I think it is. Suddenly I’m crying, that little-kid gulping kind of crying, where you can’t catch your breath. The morning after Ethan died, I resented the mourners collecting in my living room. How could they fall into the role and accept Ethan’s death so readily? While they wept and carried on, I cleaned the house. Scrubbed the shower grout with a toothbrush and Clorox. Now I’m one of the howling mourners. But they’ve wrapped it up already, moved on.
Sophie knows how she’s supposed to act, what everyone expects of her:
I want to be a classy widow – a Jackie Kennedy kind of widow. Slim and composed, elegant and graceful. White gloves and a string of pearls. But I seem to be more the Jack Daniel’s kind of widow – wailing in the supermarket and mowing through the salad bar, hair all crazy like an unmade bed.
Lately, life requires so much self-discipline. While most people have a to-do list, I have a don’t-do list. Don’t eat Oreos until your gums bleed. Don’t sleep in your clothes. Don’t grab the produce boy’s teenage wrists and sob.
I am amazed that this is Ms. Winston’s first novel. It is well-written and poignant and funny and wrenching – sometimes all on the same page.
Isn’t there some way out of this? I wake up thinking in the middle of the night, desperate to negotiate a deal. Isn’t there some way around having to start this new life without my husband?
Maybe there’s been a mistake. A clerical error. Maybe the angel of death is a bumbling bureaucrat who took the wrong Ethan. “Oh, your Ethan,” the sweet volunteer in the daffodil-colored uniform behind the front desk at the hospital lobby would say if I called the hospital to check. “He didn’t die. He went home.” Then I’d climb into the Honda, drive back down to San Jose, and find Ethan in our kitchen waiting for me.
“I’ve been at the hardware store,” he’d say, shrugging and holding out a tiny brown bag of drill bits.
That’s it: My husband went to the hardware store for seven months. You know how men are!