Lettered Ladies Book Club: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

Although I have yet to deliver an unqualified rave of a book in this blog (except for the occasional children’s book), I swear I’m not a book snob. To prove this, I will now make a confession that could forever destroy my credibility in certain circles: I enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Though it’s been several years since I read it, I recently thought about it again when I read an article about Gilbert in the November/December 2013 issue of Poets & Writers. Her editor at Viking described the book proposal for her memoir, which would become a bestseller: “[I]t was full of great promise and urgency and wisdom. We at Viking thought it was the strongest and most persuasive proposal we had ever seen.”

That’s what stays with me about Eat, Pray, Love: its sense of urgency and the authenticity of its mission. In the genre (which Gilbert may have inaugurated?) of what I call “taking a year off to complete a crazy and/or impossible project because it will provide me with something I desperately need in my life and which may also slightly be motivated by the desire for a book contract,” it is exemplary. The desire-for-a-book-contract part is way, way in the background, and because of the power of her writing, you truly believe (you truly do!) that Gilbert needs to fix her broken life by visiting countries that start with the letter “I.”

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair starts out with this kind of urgency. Nina Sankovitch’s vibrant sister has died, and for three years Sankovitch runs from her grief by immersing herself in the busy life of a mother of four. Then she decides to stop running and instead read books for a year: one a day. Anyone who has dealt with grief can identify with both the desire to run from it and the eventual need to confront it. I was intensely curious to find out how reading, which we all agree in a general sense is good for the soul, helped her deal with her overwhelming grief.

The only problem, as my fellow Lettered Ladies Kate and Laura have both mentioned in this little blogular book club of ours, is the rather commonplace nature of some of her findings. Yes, books encourage us to remember, and remembering the lives of the dead can provide closure. Yes, books deal with the theme of guilt, and survivor guilt is common among those left behind. Yes, books often have vividly drawn characters that can remind of those we have lost. But Sankovitch’s sometimes book-report-ish summaries of the books she read and her attempts to connect them to memoiristic snippets from her own backstory tend to dissipate the urgency of her original intention. Transitions become strained, and a certain blandness can ensue: for example, “The holidays are an excellent time for looking backward” is the sentence that begins one chapter.

Maybe it’s normal, after the blinding intensity of the grief that she describes so effectively in her first chapters, that a more measured tone would take over as she processes her grief. I can’t begrudge a writer her healing, and I can’t begrudge anyone the desire to read. In fact, this book (and the need to read it for the book club) gave me a gift. I had been falling into a rut of spending my few precious moments of free time—after a day of work and childcare and before falling asleep—doing the New York Times crossword puzzle on my phone. Because I was way behind on reading this book, I finally picked it up from my bedside shelf and started it. It reminded me how enriching it can be to spend even a few minutes a day immersed in the words and the world of someone else. That lesson: so commonplace. Of course books help us expand our horizons! But the deepest lessons tend to be the commonplace ones. Sankovitch and I can agree: books are good for the soul.