LJ Best Books 2017

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Librarians’ Best Books of 2011: Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye

Anna Mickelsen, reference librarian at the Springfield City Library, MA, loves Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye (Riverhead)

What We Said:

One of the few memoirs I’ve read that keeps me chewing over an issue, with painful, charged, and meaningful descriptions of bereavement. This touched many nerves and deserves to be read.

What She Says:

Is it better to lose a loved one without warning or over an agonizing stretch of days and weeks? I used to ponder this question after my mother’s lingering death, naively assuming that my experiences had been unique, until I heard an interview with Meghan O’Rourke about The Long Goodbye. In her part memoir, part examination of our cultural responses to grief, the Slate columnist explores the events before and after her mother’s death from cancer.

The details of the book’s first section will be familiar to many readers: diagnosis, treatments, loss of hope, end of life. O’Rourke offers clear-eyed details of her mother’s decline, interspersed with recollections of her childhood. The remainder of the narrative is concerned with the aftermath of her mother’s death on Christmas Day and the long grieving process that followed. Throughout, O’Rourke is intimate (she often describes her relationship with her dead mother as a romance), sometimes painfully so. Her carefully chosen words reflect her skill as a poet and lends a thoughtful, haunting, and melodic quality to her prose, especially in her most revealing passages.

As much as it is a chronological narrative about personal loss, however, The Long Goodbye is also an account of O’Rourke’s desire to manage grief and understand its role in society by delving into others’ thoughts on the subject. In an attempt to come to terms with her mother’s death, she consults sources ranging from Plato to C.S. Lewis to the most up-to-date scholarship. Conclusions and philosophical questions are interwoven as O’Rourke adapts to her motherless state‚ whether or not she has fully accepted it.

Her subjects include our complex feelings about the dead; our fear of death and inability to confront our own; the transition of death from something familiar and normal to something deeply terrifying that must be avoided at all costs; the obsession and self-centeredness of grief; and, of course, questions of faith and what happens after death.

To me, there’s something incredibly appealing about a memoir with five dense pages of references for further reading. Each line of investigation seems to lead O’Rourke to a new understanding about her own situation:

If children learn through exposure to new experiences, mourners unlearn through exposure to absence in new contexts. Grief requires acquainting yourself with the world again and again; each first causes a break that must be reset…. The lesson lay in the empty chair at the dinner table. It was learned night after night, day after day. (176)

Despite reading, discussion, and intellectual grappling, O’Rourke concludes that her mother’s death can never fully be contained or explained by any of these methods. And perhaps she’s right‚ that reading about someone else’s experience can never truly capture your own‚ but it is truly heartening to see another light in the dark.

I recommend this to anyone trying to understand more about loss. In a library context, The Long Goodbye could easily be used in a display about cancer or long-term illness or recommended as a readalike for Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, an LJ Best Book of 2005.

Anna’s Favorite Passage:

In the beginning there was the wind, the wind made by breath, the word of the wind, and in our hearts we kept telling the story over and over of how we loved her and were there, there, there, once we were all there, and she took a breath like a gasp and her eyes opened and she took us in, all of us there, and then she breathed once more, the last breath, and we were there and she was not, and even now I think, Come on, Mom, stay another night, stay the night‚ stay the night.

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Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

Heather McCormack (hmccormack@mediasourceinc.com, HuisceBeatha on Twitter) is Editor, Book Review for Library Journal.