Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Book Review: In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me about Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love by Joseph Luzzi

I have struggled with what to think of this book since I read it. I am still not sure what my final verdict is. Maybe writing this review will help me solidify things.

Joseph Luzzi's wife, Katherine, was killed in a car accident, but she was kept alive just long enough to deliver their daughter, Isabel. Joseph was devastated by this loss. I mean, completely unable to function in most ways. He is a professor at Bard College in New York, and he and Katherine had been living in a small town just north of the city. He moves back to his hometown in Rhode Island, to give over the care of Isabel to his mother and four older sisters.

He throws himself into work, commuting from two states away, writing an academic book. His family and friends are baffled by his ability to function so well on campus, but his utter inability to be a parent. And I was baffled too. I just wanted to shake him. He was so self-indulgent. He kept saying that he just couldn't function as a parent. But I disagree. If he hadn't had this safety net to fall back on, I think he'd have managed. As much as he praises his mother for her selflessness and her love for and care for his daughter, I think she was in some ways an enabler. Not to mention this meant that Isabel was being raised by a woman still steeped in the old ways of Calabria, a woman who had been merely fourteen when she had been married, and a woman still very much enmeshed in the machismo social structures of Italy. In addition, she fed Isabel garbage food and although Joseph said he wanted Isabel to eat organic food from Whole Foods, I'm not sure if he ever even told his mother this, and if so, he certainly didn't do anything when she refused. I was unimpressed with his excuses for Isabel's neglect. I totally get that Katherine's death was horrible, devastating, and threw him for a loop, but how long does he get to use that as an excuse? You can be depressed and in mourning and still feed your child decent food. If he could pull himself together enough to write an academic book, I say it's not that he didn't have the energy or wherewithal to parent properly, but he was misdirecting it. And what was more important, his career or his daughter? His choices were damning.

In fact, he only ever seems to pull out of his funk and start to operate like an adult again, when he meets the woman who is now his current wife. He claims that he started to function again and started to take over Isabel's rearing on his own, but from what I saw it seemed like it was only when he met Helena that he started to parent again. (His dating, by the way, also got a lot of his time and attention when Isabel was still being neglected at home. That also gives me serious pause regarding his "I was so depressed and couldn't function!" argument.) I got the feeling that he was a Mama's boy who really can't get along well without a woman in his life to take care of the details.

I will give him props for his brutal honesty. He certainly gives readers all the information so we can judge him harshly if we see fit. He may give excuses, but he doesn't obscure the facts.

I know I'm supposed to be impressed with his deep reading and the way he found solace in his critical appreciation of Dante's The Divine Comedy, but I thought it was too much and he took it too far. It started to feel a little like class. I did read the books back in college, but he gives you so much of them, that it's unnecessary: you will feel like you read them after this. The interpretation was completely accessible and not academic, and I liked it up to a point.

I guess what it boils down to for me is that this was a tragic story, very well told, but in the end, I just don't like Joseph as a person. And in a memoir that's hard to get over. It's one thing if he were ruining his own life (I've enjoyed those types of memoirs! I adore schadenfreude.) but to be screwing over his innocent infant daughter at the same time is hard to overlook. If wrenching honesty and beautiful writing are what you like in a memoir, this book is for you. (But not for me.)

The publisher gave me a copy of this book to review.

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