While this novel tells the story of the recently widowed Dee Heller, who is now teaching a griefwriting course in the New York City college from which she has recently retired, its central character is really thematic: the idea of grief. It is this which brings together a diverse group of students who seek healing after traumatic loss. They accomplish this – and much more – through therapeutic writing and interactions with one another in the classroom. Exploring the past and, in many instances, acknowledging their mistakes, they gain the self-knowledge and courage necessary to move beyond guilt and despair in order to reclaim their lives after profound loss.
Dee’s students are an eclectic group. The oldest is Dee’s former colleague, a renowned professor against whom she has held a grudge for many years; the youngest, an inner-city teenager whose brother was killed by the police. Despite their diversity, which often divides them, as seen in their heated arguments about racial profiling, affirmative action, and sexual abuse in the military – topics recently debated in the press, Congress, and the Supreme Court – their experience of grief draws them together in unexpected ways.
Against all odds, Dee finds herself attracted to a man she has long despised, believing that he attempted to undermine her efforts to get tenure many years earlier, and a relationship loosely following the narrative arc of Elizabeth Bennet’s romance with Darcy in Pride and Prejudice evolves. There is the possibility of yet another unlikely romantic attachment when the selfless caregiver of three husbands admits she is not the saint she appears to be and learns that a fellow student, who abandoned his demented wife to move in with another woman, is not the scoundrel she has taken him for. Different kinds of bonds, including mentoring, are forged, and still others salvaged, most notably between a young couple whose marriage is disintegrating in the wake of their young daughter’s drowning death.
The story of these griefwriters attests to the resilience of the human spirit. With its universal themes, the book holds appeal for anyone who has ever been a caregiver or lost a loved one, but it is also of interest to readers of academic novels, fans of Jane Austen, anyone following the current debates about social issues in America, and all those who appreciate well-written prose.
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