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Truthfulness in the Shadow of Despair: 'Our Short History'

A tender tale of survival and legacy, Lauren Grodstein meditates on the love and grief between a dying mother and her son.

Our Short History
Lauren Grodstein


Mar 2018


"No matter how much it hurts, no matter how embarrassing — I need to tell you the truth" conveys the character Karen Neulander to her son. In the wake of her terminal cancer prognosis, Karen writes her son a novel about her experiences and reflections on their life together. Karen's book is the frame story for Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein. A tender tale of survival and legacy, Grodstein meditates on the love and grief between a dying mother and her son. Karen is magnanimous yet flawed, thus her story is highly readable. She, and consequently Our Short History, is unflinchingly honest in its insight on parenthood, death, and the painful realization that life continues after you pass away.

Karen is a successful campaign manager diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer. She is only 43-years-old and the single mother of the six-year-old Jake. Karen realizes she will die before her son reaches adolescence. So she writes him a book that provides the advice a parent gives to their children including "find a life partner who behaves well during a crisis" (77). Karen's book becomes more ruminative to include recollections and confessions of uncomfortable truths. Both are essential in understanding a deceased person's identity. The majority of the frame story is Karen reconciling with Jake's estranged father. She displays flashes of maternal jealousy because Jake's undeserving father will have a longer and fuller relationship with the boy. Yes, this is completely iniquitous, but fairness is not one of death's characteristics.

Despite being a fictional cancer narrative, Our Short History is more than "sick lit". Grodstein avoids hokey sentimentalism and focuses on raw emotion. Throughout the novel, Karen wavers between ugly crying, mordant self-awareness, and visualizing her son's future. Her grief frequently shifts but maintains strands of positivity. Karen doesn't lament the lost time with her son. Rather, she imagines a beautiful and positive life for Jake. She wants to ensure for college he "get[s] in somewhere good and go there and love every minute of it. That's my advice for you" (221). These moments of projection develop Our Short History's poignancy and leaves the reader wondering what type of advice we'd give to our own families in such a circumstance.

Karen has moments of self-centeredness when she's stuck processing her choices or bemoaning her appearance. This isn't grandstanding: Karen's emotional wavering is realistic. Grodstein's conscientious depiction of end-of-life awareness is the ultimate contrast between Our Short History and other sick lit novels. Karen is aware that life will continue onward after her death. Jake will grow-up, her sister Allie will regain functionality, and her campaigns will become footnotes in New York City's sordid political history. When it comes to Jake specifically, Karen is predominantly unselfish and her moments of egocentrism are clear extensions of her grief.At times the novel transgresses too far into Karen's descriptions of her campaigning or the adulterous life of one of her clients, Ace Reynolds, an Anthony Weiner type character. It's unclear how a minor figure such as Reynolds impacts her son's future identity. Likewise, the secondary characters are mere narrative devices used to complicate the main characters' identities. The novel's unsung hero is Allie, who devotes herself to creating a semblance of normalcy for Karen and Jake. Readers never get Allie's full story other than she personifies "the condition of helping the people you love most in the world leave you" (207). Allie's kindness and strength perforates the melancholy.

Grodstein flawlessly incorporates sarcasm that lightens the despair. For example, Karen sharply realizes "without a crisis, really, [she'd] have nothing to do today but go to the emergency room" (319). Here the author uses humor to enable a sympathetic response towards Karen's desperation. Yet her illogical tendencies are frequently overdrawn. She fixates on whether Jake's father will litigate and "take Jake away... but that's when I suddenly realized that [Jake's] father might be a monster" (148). This fear is sensible as revisiting their history understandably causes anxiety. But she persists and her fears seem unwarranted as he never pursues full custody. This is where the novel loses some believability and reminds reader that it is, after all, a work of fiction.

Our Short History illustrates the tragedy of expectant death. Karen's moments of joy are brief and coincide with remission's false hope. Her ordeal does not render Schadenfreude, since readers leave with a feeling of thankfulness that her life isn't our own. Concurrently, Karen's ability to face a certain death endows the character and the novel with a sense of empowerment. As such, Our Short History demonstrates Grodstein's ability to find truthfulness in the shadows of despair.

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Enjoy Lauren Grodstein's reading from Our Short History in this exclusive video.


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