Thursday, March 12, 2015

An Unforgettable Read: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Over the weekend, I couldn't stop reading All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (2014), and today, I'm still thinking about the characters.

Sisters Yolandi, nicknamed Yoli, and Elfreida, known as Elf, grew up in a Mennonite community in northern Canada. Elf was a child prodigy who played the piano, which presented certain challenges for the family since the Mennonite elders did not approve of the playing of instruments. The girls became lively teenagers, each rebelling against the Mennonite way of life.

When we first meet Elf and Yoli, Elf is in a psych ward in Winnipeg. Although the beautiful, talented and seemingly successful Elf has led a glamorous life, playing in concert halls around the world, she doesn't want to live. She's tried to kill herself, and it's not the first time. Yoli, the narrator of the story, has come from her home in Toronto to help her mother who's exhausted from dealing with Elf as Elf refuses to cooperate with the doctors and nurses and has stopped eating. 

Yoli's life is a complicated juggling act. She has a teenage son and daughter from two different marriages, and she's going through a divorce from her second husband.  She has experienced some success as the author of a series of books for girls known as the Rodeo Rhonda series, but she's trying to finish her first literary novel. Yoli carries the manuscript of this novel everywhere in a Safeway bag. Yoli drinks too much and makes bad decisions about most everything.

At one point in All My Puny Sorrows, Yoli wonders if there is a suicide gene that can affect a family. Elf and Yoli's father killed himself and so did their cousin. As Yoli struggles to find a way to help Elf, in the end, what Elf wants is for Yoli to take her to Switzerland so she can die in a way that she desires. Yoli halfheartedly gets the details together but procrastinates about finalizing such a trip.

Although the subject matter is grim, there is humor in the book.  The back story of Elf and Yoli's years growing up has situations that made me laugh out loud. In Winnipeg, Yoli manages to get into some comical situations trying to deal with Elf, her mother, her teenage children from long distance, her soon to be ex-husband (via text messages) and a mechanic who was a classmate from high school.

The title of the book comes from a poem by Coleridge:

"I too a sister had, an only sister--
She loved me dearly and I doted on her!
To her I pour'd forth all my puny sorrows."

Complicated, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful, I recommend All My Puny Sorrows.


  1. Monica, this sounds like a deeply affecting read. I'm adding it to my wish list. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

  2. This definitely sounds like a book that will stay with readers long after the last page. I'm adding it to my wish list, too.