It wasn’t the presence of special guest Erica Jong or the classic East Village garden-apartment location that drew me to a book party last week. It was the book itself, and the author with whom I once shared a young-writerhood.
I met Monica Wesolowska half-a-life ago at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers in Northern California, a summer week at a ski resort where both of us were in workshops with established writers. We met at lunch because we were clutching the same blank journal-books, their recycled pages full of our hopeful prose. Afterward, we shared women’s writing groups, dinners, and even the same telemarketing gig (to support us while we became famous writers). We stayed in touch after I moved back East; she married the guy she’d just met when I left, and started publishing that extraordinary writing of hers.
After a while, Monica and I heard about one another more from friends in common than from direct conversation; it was Ericka Lutz, whose novel I reviewed for WVFC last year, who told me the heart-wrenching news about her first child, Silvan, who suffered a brain injury that meant he was born near-stillborn. I was happy to see photos of the two children who followed, healthy and happy in Berkeley, and about the continued success of her writing career, including inclusion in the Best New American Fiction. (In the video at the end of this post, you can see her read a piece of “flash fiction” in a tribute to Lydia Davis.) And when her memoir Holding Silvan was accepted for publication, I knew I’d read it and hoped others would too. But it wasn’t until it actually came out that I realized how. . . well, how important it is.
It’s hard to put down, because it moves as quickly as a novel — though one must do so to breathe because of the events it describes. As Kate Tuttle said in The Boston Globe, “Only a writer with Wesolowska’s enormous talents could render her tale with such intelligence and grace, bracing honesty and even humor.” I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but I did to a family member whose child has been through numerous hospitalizations; she bought it immediately and wrote afterward, “This book was so honest, I can not even begin to say how many times I had to put it down and walk away before picking it back up and reading again. This was tough to read, and as crazy as it may sound, it truly made me feel lucky.”
For the rest of us, Wesolowska explores with honesty the kind of questions most of us don’t want to think about — the kind of choices people make for their loved ones when they’re about to die. When KJ Dell’Antonia highlighted Holding Silvan at The New York Times’ Motherlode column, she quoted Monica as she recommended the book to everyone:
Holding Silvan is a guide to the emotional territory of the end of life when death does not come simply. “What we had to choose for Silvan was an extreme, but almost no one just dies of illness anymore,” Ms. Wesolowska said. “Everyone has to make a choice or multiple choices along the path. We need to be prepared for that.”
In providing this guide, Monica has given us all fuel for reinvention — of our families and our own lives. I haven’t thanked her yet — except right now, by telling you that it’s not a book to be missed.