Friday, June 8, 2018

ALTERNATIVE REMEDIES FOR LOSS, a young woman's grief drives journey to maturity in this novel, sad, funny and true




Olivia, Joanna Cantor's narrator in Alternative Remedies for Loss (Bloomsbury Publishing, May) is  twenty-two, pretty and privileged. Her family isn't rich but comfortably middle class. Sharply aware and self-critical, Olivia knows she's cushioned by her family and yet is unable to stop herself from messing up. She tests her limits in a spiral less coming-of-age, than a struggle to manage the emotional turmoil after her mother's death. She wonders what would happen if no one helped her pick up the pieces--like her mother did. She is profoundly alone, trying to figure out not just her place but what, if anything, has value.

Olivia's angst reminded me of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe's autobiography.She is a heroine just as self absorbed and overly serious. But she possesses a wicked sense of social mores and a meter for hypocrisy equal to Austen's Emma. Olivia's ruthless perception spares not her brothers, complacent in their relationships, nor her father, who shortly after the funeral introduced his new woman and even asked her on the family trip. Planned by her mother as a cultural trip and now a remembrance had become a meaningless diversion. Her mother had always wanted to go to India, and had included  a visit to a real ashram. Her father arranged for shopping and restaurants like home in an Indian setting. Olivia's alienation deepened, when she returned to New York City.

Through her brother's connections,Olivia had an entry-level job at a film company and, though she worked hard, her sideline was dabbling in dubious affairs. Though Olivia questions her behavior, she lets it go and decides to ditch school and work after the summer. Her father, angry when he learns she's not going back to Vassar with one year left, is over the top, when she loses her job for an unfathomable offfense. Numb with grief, Olivia faces being without an income, apartment or boyfriend with huge self contempt and escapisim. She's a party girl adrift on temporary couches.

With nothing else to do, she helps her brother clean out her mother's things and comes across a mysterious photo of her mother with a letter signed by an unknown man.. She thought she knew her mother? Her world already rocked, Olivia goes on a quest to learn more. The trip will take her back to India, to the shallows and depths of her soul. And what emerges in the end is knowledge bigger than herself and a new sense of being whole.

Olivia's passage is moving and shocking and unpredictable, as the life she's reclaiming. Nothing works out, because in the end, nothing is expected until she discovers what is true and matters. She's a great character and her coming of age happens on a couple levels. Her mother's passage underlies this journey.  Recommended.

S.W.