The Why of Things
by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop
Published by Simon & Schuster
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
5 / 5
The unspoken arrangement between parent and child is that the child will bury the parent. Not the other way around. When any child dies, it is sad and heartbreaking, and we find ourselves left asking “why.”
The Jacobs family faces this question as they continue to grieve the death of eldest daughter Sophie, nearly a year earlier. We slowly come to understand how Sophie died, but we, like her parents and two sisters, keep asking why.
The family is forced to face the whys when they arrive at their summer home in Gloucester. Within minutes, fifteen-year-old Eve, now the oldest daughter, finds tire tracks that lead into the water-filled quarry across the street. Rescue vehicles arrive, but they take too long for Eve, who eyes the air bubbles with increasing desperation.
It is this death, of a stranger named James Favazza, that forces the Jacobses to rip off the thin scab that started to form over the wound left by Sophie’s death. Each member of the family adjusts / grieves / survives in his or her own way, and James’s death reveals those differences to them.
Anders Jacobs attempts to make peace with his daughter’s death by burrowing into security. He protects his heart by unintentionally distancing himself from his wife Joan and daughters Eve and Eloise. He’s there, he’s around, but he is not present. When Joan gives him a series of scuba diving lessons, Anders is loath to take them. They make him uncomfortable. He attempts to answer the “why” by tracking down an address he found crumpled in a trash can in Sophie’s room.
Knowing that another mother lost her child, Joan finds herself drawn to James Favazza’s mother. Even as she worries that James’s mother will judge her, Joan is convinced the two will understand each other. She can’t understand her husband, although she thinks she does, and she needs to understand someone.
Eve’s process is raw and realistic. Alternating between anger with her sister and deep sadness, Eve wants to prove that James’s death was not suicide or an accident. She’s convinced it was murder, and she sets out to prove it.
Seven-year-old Eloise adjusts in a different way. When she finds dead animals, she wants them buried. She insists on it.
As we discover the details behind Sophie’s death, we learn less about James’s. The message here is clear and unflinching: we may never know the whys, much less understand them. We are called to live, however, and to do so, we must learn to accept that unanswered whys are a part of life.
This book … oh, this book. It is so lyrically and evocatively written that you will feel a loss when it’s over. You get to know the characters so well, and you find yourself wanting to throw an arm around them and comfort them. It seems strange to say I enjoyed a book about adjusting to life after the death of a child, but I did. It’s just so good.
Winthrop does not shy away from the tough questions. She may not answer them, but that’s part of the lesson you learn.