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Review: ‘The Long Goodbye’ by Meghan O’Rourke

Review: ‘The Long Goodbye’ by Meghan O’Rourke post image

The Long Goodbye is poet and journalist Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir about losing her mother to metastatic colorectal cancer on Christmas Day, 2008, when O’Rourke was in her 30s and her mother was only 55-years-old. The book follows O’Rourke and her family through the initial cancer diagnosis, her mother’s short recovery and subsequent decline, and the aftermath of losing the center of their family. Throughout the book, O’Rourke constantly battles with an overwhelming question: How do we live with the knowledge that, eventually, we will die?

I don’t know how to write a review of a memoir about a young woman loosing her mother. I still have my mom, but I think the idea of losing a mother has paralyzed me in some way, made me unable to write analytically about the book in the way I would like. I hope, instead, some feelings I was left with after reading The Long Goodbye will be sufficient.

I loved O’Rourke’s writing style. I thought she had a beautiful way with words, and I have a number of paragraphs that I marked because I thought both the writing and sentiment were lovely. I think that’s probably the combination of O’Rourke being a poet and a journalist — a talent for choosing the right and most economical words for a situation. Take, for example, this section traveling after her mother’s death:

On my way to Joshua Tree National Park, a vast wind farm loomed on the left. The turning windmills were eerie, like machines from another world, and their strangeness made me stomach hurt with something like homesickness. The desert was dry and majestic and it calmed me; I was empty and it was, too. The open sky over the land, the juxtaposition of the minute and majestic — it all expressed the dissonance I felt, and having my sense of smallness reflected back at me put me strangely at ease. How could my loss matter in the midst of all this? Yet it did matter to me, and in this setting that felt natural, the way the needle on the cactus in the huge desert is natural.

I admired the way O’Rourke was able to be honest — both about herself and her family — without becoming explicit. After her mother was diagnosed the first time, O’Rourke married her long-time boyfriend as a way, she reflects, to try and save her mother. This obviously doesn’t work, and O’Rourke is honest about the ways in which she failed in her marriage.

After her mother passed away, O’Rourke wrote about getting involved in an unhealthy relationship with an ex-boyfriend and with her thoughts of suicide while mourning for her mother in a way that wasn’t graphic but still expressed how much losing her mother changed her. In time when there’s a tendency to be shocking in memoirs, O’Rourke’s restraint actually impacted me more.

I appreciated the range of literature O’Rourke mentioned as she tried to process her feelings. The book ranges widely, touching everything from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Alan Moore’s Watchmen and from Emily Dickinson’s poetry to Evelyn Waugh’s satire on death, The Loved One’s. There’s a range of genres and authors and time periods that fit well together and within this story.

I was intrigued by O’Rourke’s subtle argument that part of the reason grief can be so difficult to deal with is because, at least in the United States, we’ve lost our mourning rituals. By losing a way of saying goodbye, of denying ourselves a public way to express sorrow, death becomes a topic to just avoid. I wanted her to flesh out some of her conjectures about mourning rituals and the impact they have on grief, rather than just let them fade to the background. As the book is written, it’s more of an afterthought than compelling discussion.

I wanted a better sense of cohesion or conclusion to the book. As I read, I didn’t feel like I had a good sense of where the story was going or what larger point O’Rourke was trying to make as she explored what different thinkers had to say about death.

At least part of this is, undeniably, because The Long Goodbye is a memoir about grieving and there is, in the end, really no conclusion or end to grief. As O’Rourke puts it quite eloquently near the end,

As I was walking I thought: I will carry this wound forever. It’s not a question of getting over it or healing. No; it’s a question of learning to live with transformation. For the loss is transformative, in good ways and bad, a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools. It is too central for that. It’s not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.

However, I still wished I closed the last page feeling a little more closure than I actually did. The Long Goodbye has so many of the parts to a great memoir — emotional honesty, great writing, and wide-ranging story — that the unfulfilled conclusion left me wanting more.

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review as part of a TLC Book Tour. The book goes on sale April 14, 2011.

Other Reviews: Along the Way |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Rating: ★★★½☆

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Eva April 5, 2011, 6:38 am

    My mom is 50, and the idea of her dying fills me such nausea and panic that there is no way I could read a book like this. *shudder*

    • Kim April 5, 2011, 7:16 pm

      Eva: I think I had to distance myself from it a bit, to avoid thinking too much about my own mother, and I think that’s why this review was hard to write.

  • Lu April 5, 2011, 7:00 am

    I was going to be on this tour, but didn’t respond to the request in time and I might be kind of grateful that I didn’t. My grandmother died very young, very suddenly, when I was 20, and it was devastating for my family. I don’t know if I’m ready to read about something like that. Or read about it and not be able to think about my mom, who is also 50.

    I really love that quote you have there at the end though! So beautiful.

    • Kim April 5, 2011, 7:19 pm

      Lu: I think having a personal connection to the book like yours would make this really hard, in the same way I expect losing a spouse would make A Year of Magical Thinking very hard.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) April 5, 2011, 12:48 pm

    I can only imagine how difficult it would be to write a book like that. Emotions you didn’t even know you possessed surface when you lose a parent.

    • Kim April 5, 2011, 7:21 pm

      bermudaonion: I think that’s a very good point. I can’t imagine trying to write a book like this.

  • Kathleen April 5, 2011, 7:05 pm

    I’m on the tour for this one next week and just started reading it today. I am loving it so far and appreciate the poetic quality to the author’s writing. I have really enjoyed your thoughts and insights about the book.

    • Kim April 5, 2011, 7:22 pm

      Kathleen: I thought her writing was beautiful — there were many more passages I marked, a number that made me tear up from just being lovely.

  • Trisha April 6, 2011, 3:08 pm

    Grieving is such a complex and personal process; and yet saying that I am struck by the question of whether or not the retreat into a personal grief is not a result of the lack of social grieving processes and traditions.

    • Kim April 8, 2011, 4:29 pm

      Trisha: I really wish O’Rourke had explored that theme more in the book. I think it’s a fascinating question — whether we’ve made grief worse by making it private — that just gets a few brief mentions.

  • Aths April 6, 2011, 6:22 pm

    I accepted this book for review mainly because I was curious about the author’s suggestion that in the US, we don’t express our grief publicly. It’s something I’ve noticed (I’ve been in the US for 3 years only) and I can’t wait to read it.

    • Kim April 8, 2011, 4:30 pm

      Aths: I’m not sure she ever really gets into that question as much as I wanted, but it does come up. It’s something I’m still curious about.

  • Jennifer April 7, 2011, 1:27 pm

    I loved the way you talked about this book. Loss is one of those things that no one really ever seems able to talk about and yet we all want to try. Because it does change us. The idea of losing my mother terrifies me a lot, but I also am aware that it will happen one day. But no matter how much we know, we still can never really prepare ourselves for the grief that comes with the loss of a loved one. That’s for sharing your beautiful reflections on this book.

    • Kim April 8, 2011, 4:30 pm

      Jennifer: You’re definitely right. It’s impossible to prepare for something like losing a parent or another loved one, even if there’s a tendency to want to try — especially if that person has a long illness as O’Rourke’s mother did.

  • S. Krishna April 9, 2011, 7:49 am

    This sounds like a powerful book, but one that’s difficult to read. I’ll keep that in mind if I decide to pick it up. Thanks for the review!

    • Kim April 10, 2011, 9:06 am

      S. Krishna: The book did have an impact in a lot of places, but was hard to read because of the mother stuff. I think most girls who love their moms would have a similar reaction.

  • Lisa Munley April 23, 2011, 9:15 am

    I’m so sorry for the belated comment but just wanted to tell you I love the way you set this up, with your impressions and your commentary on them rather than a straight review- it’s very effective. Thank you so much for being on this tour!

    • Kim April 24, 2011, 4:42 pm

      Thanks Lisa 🙂 I’ve been playing with review formats a bit this year, so this was a little bit of an experiment. I’m glad it worked!