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,

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
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.”