A gifted writer sends up, among other things, the cult of “positivity” in cancer treatment
The Book of Dahlia: A Novel. By Elisa Albert. Free Press, 276 pp., $23.
By Janice Harayda
Dahlia Finger has a Glioblastoma multiforme, the type of malignant brain tumor that killed 17-year-old Johnny Gunther in the classic memoir Death Be Not Proud. And you could read The Book of Dahlia as a send-up of that and other books that ennoble – deservedly or not – young people who have catastrophic illnesses
There is nothing noble – or so it might seem — about the anti-heroine of Elisa Albert’s first novel, a 29-year-old unemployed stoner who lives in a bungalow in Venice, California, bought for her by her well-off father. Dahlia describes herself, with only slight comic exaggeration, as “vile, self-absorbed, depressing, lazy, messy, spoiled” and “probably mentally ill.” She is also sexually irresponsible and relentlessly profane.
But Dahlia has perfect pitch for the absurdity – and cruelty — of much of the advice inflicted on cancer patients. The propaganda is exemplified by It’s Up to You: The Cancer To-Do List, a guilt-inducing advice manual that she got soon after her diagnosis. If you don’t get better, it suggests, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough to show “positivity” or find the “bright side.” (Bad luck, apparently, has nothing to do with it.) Each chapter in The Book of Dahlia takes its title from one in It’s Up to You and satirizes a psychological cliché — “Reframe,” “Heal Yourself,” “Find a Support System” – often with merciless accuracy.
All of this is more interesting than the parallel story of how Dahlia became such a slacker. That tale begins with her parents’ courtship on a kibbutz. And involves somewhat predictable explanations — cruel mother, callow older brother, kind but ineffectual father – that emerge as Dahlia undergoes radiation, chemotherapy and more.
But if The Book of Dahlia has less unity How This Night Is Different, Albert’s wonderful collection of short stories, it also has higher ambitions. Young writers typically find humor in safe topics, such as designer shoes or clueless bosses. Few have the courage to take aim at larger – or worthier — targets than Albert does in this book.
Best line: Dahlia has had a half dozen or so casual dates with a man named
Ben when she learns she has cancer. Her parents cast him immediately as her “boyfriend”: “Margalit and Bruce were just thrilled that Dahlia appeared to have a boyfriend. This happy news could almost elbow out cancer. How much more poignant to die an untimely death in the throws of a blossoming relationship!”
Worst line: Albert could tighten her grip on point on view. Most of her story is told from Dahlia’s point of view. But at times the story goes inside the heads of others, such as Dahlia’s father: “Bruce ached for his daughter’s lack of a mother, and had tried to do everything in his power to distract her.” You could argue that at such times, Dahlia has internalized her father’s point of view so that it’s now hers. But because we don’t know if how she has internalized it, the lines are distracting.
Published: March 2008 www.elisaalbert.com.
Furthermore: Albert also wrote the short story collection, How This Night Is Different www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/22/.
One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved