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Tolstoy and the Purple Chair


Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” by Nina Sankovitch

September 15, 2011

Grief is universal, but we each respond to a death in our own way. Nina Sankovitch’s response to the harrowing death of her older sister, Anne-Marie, from cancer at the age of 46, was to run.

Sankovitch describes herself as sundered in two after Anne-Marie’s death. Part of her couldn’t wait to leave the room with her sister’s deathbed, rushing their mother out the door. And part of her carried the moment of learning of her sister’s death everywhere, so that the news was always fresh, the grief always sharp. She filled her days with activities, not too hard to do with four young sons, until she realized that she couldn’t run away from the sorrow.

Sankovitch had to stop to confront it, and she did that by sitting really still, reading a complete book every single day for a year (and writing about each). She read mysteries, young adult books, literary works, short story collections, novellas. All of it was fiction. At the end of the year, during which she experienced extravagant highs, other griefs, and some sheer escape through what she had read, she found herself at peace.

Sankovitch provides vivid descriptions of her family life and the purple chair itself moves beyond prop into metaphor. Sankovitch is even better at describing the searing emotions she experienced during the illness and at the death of her sister. Each chapter has an epigraph from one of the books as a signal of the chapter’s topic; each chapter circles back to Sankovitch’s main theme, that books have provided her with a path out of an all-encompassing grief.

Sankovitch is still reading (fiction and non-fiction) and blogging; you can find out about her recent favorites here. Which books saved you in moments of trauma and grief? Please share your favorites in the comments.

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