The Tender Land: A Family Love Story by Kathleen Finneran

"translucent with love..."

Occasionally we come across a book so memorable, so well-written and caring, so compelling and rich, that we want to tell nearly everyone about it. The Tender Land (Houghton Mifflin, $24.00 hardcover) by first-time author Kathleen Finneran is that sort of book. It has become one of my favorite books, a treasure I intend to reread soon. Along with a few other memoirs (the passionate memoir of a single mom with a troubled teenager, Augusta, Gone, and Mary Karr's blast-furnace of a book about growing up with literary and pharmaceutical interests in red-neck, late-'60s East Texas, Cherry), this family love story has shaped my attitudes and framed much of my thinking these past months.

The Tender Land is wonderfully told; indeed, one reviewer has said, "Finneran has pieced together a portrait of an ordinary family that has the contemplative beauty of lace: intricate and dense, translucent with love." That it is about how a family, and particularly older sibling Kathleen, coped with the suicide of their 15-year-old Sean, makes it packed with pathos, but beautiful nonetheless. I simply cannot remember being so moved by a book in a long, long time. (Those reading this who know of my father's death last year in an auto accident will understand why I was drawn to a book about family grief. And, yes, reading it has been a significant part of my journey through this loss.)

Finneran describes in truly extraordinary prose many details of her childhood--mundane memories of each sibling, family eccentricities, thoughts and feelings when the new babies arrived into their large Catholic clan, and all manner of events big and small in their 1960s and '70s suburban home. Readers grow to love this family, almost feeling a part of its customs and celebrations, the unique familial rhythms, their ups and downs, distances and intimacies. As Finneran grows into young adulthood and moves away (albeit not far), she continues to be especially close to Sean. His attraction to her, his gentleness, kindnesses and quirky humor, make his unexpected suicide that much more painful. By turn hilarious and heartbreaking, the book carries you through years of this family's life, but Sean's death and the author's grief, regret, loss and ache hang ominously over the text. The child's-eye view of a mother's previous depression--later understood as so significant--is a truly powerful bit of revelation. The gripping scene of her first sexual encounter (the night of Sean's death!) is so layered with pleasure and sadness and guilt that it is difficult to explain. My eyes well up with tears even as I think about it now...

Granted, the grief and loss in my life have drawn me to stories like these. I have written in earlier reviews last fall about how taken I was with undertaker-poet Thomas Lynch's truly remarkable books, The Undertaking and Bodies at Motion & at Rest. But I have not read the standard books on grief or theodicy (save Barbara Brown Taylor's precious and understated collection of sermons, God In Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering) and have not been especially interested in them. I wonder if I would have wept through this breathtaking book had our family, too, not gone through our particular version of "this time."

Yes, there's time, I thought. There was the time before he was born and the time after. Ordinary time. A time when we woke up every day, our souls still within us. And now there was this time. The time being. A time for which my father had said he was sorry, one for which we were all too young. It would be a time--this time--unlike any that had passed before. A long time. A time presided over by angels perhaps, messengers in slow motion.

The telling of the myriad stories complexly loop back and forth, often in mid-paragraph (although clearly not stream-of-consciousness). Finneran is a great and intentional storyteller and a wise one. Nearly everything she tells has some extra meaning, a special context, a symbolic significance. Stories come back again with a new feature, an added insight, building on a previously-used phrase or metaphor or an earlier reference or allusion. The book brillantly hangs together, potent and deep and rich. She describes in stunning detail all sorts of growing up household stuff--bike rides, making snow angels, visiting grandparents, sleeping out (including a hilarious description of she and her older sister learning to kiss by "practicing" on each other while playing I Love Lucy.) One great scene has the whole cast of extended eccentric aunts and uncles watching old home movies, including pictures of their beloved, deceased Sean.

The descriptions of the surreal nightmare of the days immediately before the funeral--the endless waiting and wondering what to do--seemed to me exceptionally accurate. It was oddly reassuring to have someone give voice to such a time.

Of course, much is told about their lives prior to Sean's death, and not all of the stories focus on him. And then they jump back to present-time phone calls and their grief work. Kathleen's older sister Mary plays a huge role and their memories are mined for meaning in retrospection.

I listened to Mary trying to comfort me, and I felt worse for it, for Mary's willingness to always be there. Before removing her nightgown after I threw up on her when we were kids, she had first helped me out of mine, and as we sat there in bed, bare, I threw up on her again before my mother came in and took us to the bathroom. When we returned to bed that night--clean bodies, clean nightgowns, clean sheets--my mother placed a plastic basin between us, and I lay awake feeling this odd desire to do it again, to be sick again, while on the other side of the basin, Mary slept soundly.

Now all these years later--a thousand miles between us--I listened to Mary comforting me. I wanted to say I was sorry, but it seemed so insufficient, so false somehow. In truth, I envied her the intimacy of what she had done the night Sean died. I had never cleaned up anyone's illness, and what did that say about me, about my ability to get close to people, so unlike Mary, whose list of such intimacies was long? That's what I should have risked saying--that I envied her....

The title, The Tender Land, has a special meaning, disclosed beautifully near the end of the book. In the spectacular last chapter--she is reading a Willa Cather novel Sean had given her--she again recalls some dear anecdotes of this special sibling bond, some stories of his gracious childhood. She bravely reflects on the family's survival, in and through the tragedy. And she ends a truly remarkable page with this paragraph:

Sean, time passes, it's true. Hours, days, and decades. And grief goes by its own measure. Now, before this day of angels ends again, before the sky changes color and the moon follows in its phase from full to new, I want to call out your name and tell you, across the tender land, that we have gone on living. We are all, every one of us, alive.

The reviews of this book have been exemplary. I cite a few, trusting that they will convince you to order this book from us, or get it from your local library. It is well worth spending a week or so with it. I trust it will mean much to those in need of just such a reflective telling of a family story.

Tillie Olsen says, "it is a rare and wondrous book, a work of such stature, wisdom, depth and passion that it will surely become a classic." Another reviewer notes, "it's unsentimental embrace of the possibility of spiritual consolation in an age of secular certitudes." And Karin Cook (author of What Girls Learn) writes, "what a gorgeous book! In rich and textured prose, Finneran illuminates the small gestures of truth that map out the nerve center of every family. The Tender Land captures the ache of missed opportunity and the horror of regret that come with losing someone we love. When you finish this beautiful book, you'll want to pick up the phone or jump on a plane and tell a loved one something you've wanted to say for a long time."