THIS IS TOEWS'S sixth novel, but I had not even heard of her before I read Curtis Sittenfield's review of this one...perhaps because it's hard for Canadian novelists to get on the radar in the U.S. But if the others are even almost as good as this one, they must be excellent.
Our narrator, Yolanda (Yoli) Van Riesen, has arrived in mid-middle-age with a couple of kids, a couple of divorces, a sputtering career as a writer of children's fiction, an offer to produce an adult fiction manuscript that she is struggling to take advantage of, and a tendency to drink a little more than she should. Her life is teetering on the brink of chaos most of the time.
Her sister, and the primary object of her attention for most of the novel, is her sister Elfriede (Elf), an internationally renowned and beloved concert pianist whose high-achieving husband is utterly devoted to her.
So--which sister is suicidally depressed?
Can Yoli pull Elf out of it? Should she pull Elf out of it? Should she, as Elf so keenly desires, take Elf to Switzerland, where suicide is legal?
Yoli has an enormous deficit in managerial skills, but Toews is beyond deft is narratively toggling between Yoli's memories of growing up (in a small Mennonite-dominated town) with the prodigally gifted but always tortured Elf and Yoli's exhausting efforts in the novel's present to get Elf to see the Bright Side and Get On With Her Life.
Toews likewise excels in portraiture, particularly with Yoli's and Elf's parents and Elf's husband. It is Elf who is most profoundly unforgettable, for the reach of her mind, the energy of her artistic gift, and the depth of her suffering.
This may seem like backhanded praise, but this is a sort of young adult novel for adults. It has the tenderness and emotional wallop of a really good young adult novel, but the narrative depth of Alice Munro. It could take the books clubs of America by storm if word gets out.