Torch, by Cheryl Strayed

Like a lot of people, I first heard of Cheryl Strayed through her currently-popular memoir Wild, which I’m proud to say I read, loved and promoted before Oprah did (this has happened a few times with books, but we’re not getting a lot of buzz around Trudy’s Book Club 2.0). While Torch was critically acclaimed when it came out a few years earlier, it wasn’t the monster hit that Wild has turned out to be, so I’m sure there are a lot of readers like me who are discovering Strayed’s earlier novel only after reading her recent memoir.

It’s kind of a reverse-Alice-Sebold effect: Sebold wrote a very good memoir, Luckyabout her own experience as a rape victim, but lots of people didn’t know about it until her novel The Lovely Bones, also at least partly about rape, became a huge hit. In Cheryl Strayed’s case, it was reading her true-life experience in Wild that led me back to the novel Torch, which is fictional but deeply rooted in the author’s lived experience.

Readers of Wild will remember that Cheryl’s life fell apart after her beloved mother died of a very swift-moving and aggressive cancer in her forties, when her three children were young adults. In Torch, Teresa is only thirty-eight when she is diagnosed with cancer and dies seven weeks later, leaving her husband, her teenaged son and her college-aged daughter to cope with the aftermath of a life suddenly torn apart.

Torch alternates between points of view — we get Teresa’s viewpoint when she is first diagnosed and begins receiving treatment. She’s an energetic, optimistic woman who can hardly believe this is happening to her. As her illness moves quickly her voice falls silent and for the bulk of the novel the three points of view are those of Josh, who drops out of high school and starts selling drugs in the chaos surrounding his mother’s death; Bruce, Teresa’s husband, who finds himself emotionally distant from his beloved stepchildren and unable to be a father to them, and who quickly falls into a new relationship; and Claire, who breaks up with her boyfriend and leaves college, but generally seems to cope the best of the three of them with this sudden loss.

All the characters are depicted well and with compassion, making this a very nuanced and thoughtful study of a family in the midst of grief. So many things ring true. such as the complete self-absorption and casual unkindness of young adult children when relating to their parents, backed up by the unthinking assumption that the parent will always be there, loving and available. Both Claire and Josh are left reeling when the mother they fiercely love but naturally take for granted is gone — and so, to all intents and purposes, is the stepfather who has always been like a father to them. Each of them does things, in this time of grief and loss, that it would be easy to label “unforgiveable” — but the novel hints at the hope and possibility of forgiveness anyway.

I read Torch quickly and found it absorbing and very well-written. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Wild or just to anyone who’s looking for a good contemporary novel dealing with cancer, death, grieving and family.

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