Tuesday, February 12, 2013

{tread: resilience} Torch by Cheryl Strayed

How much of my reaction to a book is based upon my expectations for it? Perhaps that's a subject for another day, but I bring it up here because Torch by Cheryl Strayed was a book that I was almost afraid to read. After devouring Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, I moved on to Torch with mixed feelings. Rarely do I end up liking an author's fiction and nonfiction equally. In fact, if I really like someone's nonfiction, her fiction usually disappoints me. (Expectations again.)

Then I read the jacket copy and saw that the plot of Torch is at least loosely autobiographical. Strangely, this made me angry. I wanted fiction, which I defined as a work that was entirely made up with absolutely no basis in Strayed's life. I didn't want memoir/autobiography thinly veiled as fiction.

I let Torch sit on the shelf a few more days.

Finally, I picked it up. I hoped I wouldn't have to invoke the 50-page rule. But after all my angst, I needn't have worried. Torch is that rare treat, a book that envelops the reader completely in its world. What we as readers always hope for is to enter a world that's completely imagined, populated with characters so real we feel like we could invite them over for drinks or go shopping for a new coat with them. That's Torch. After the first few pages, I forgot to compare the plot to Strayed's life. I forgot to pay attention to what she was doing as a writer. I was caught up in the story, which ends up being one of hope in the face of grief.

In Torch, Teresa is diagnosed with incurable cancer and told she has a year to live, but she's dead within a few weeks. Her family, common-law husband Bruce and children Claire and Joshua, are left to struggle on without her. Claire drops out of college. Joshua deals marijuana and meth. Bruce learns he can't stand to be alone with Teresa's memory and gets married just months after Teresa dies.

Yet this story, which could be depressing, isn't. These characters are doing the best they can, fumbling forward while looking backward. This is a story about the resilience of the human spirit.

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