Book Review: Torch by Cheryl Strayed.


No. of pages: 348 pages

Published: 20 June 2014

Publisher: Atlantic Books

Settings: Minnesota, America


I’ve read books where grief and sadness were concerned and I had to take short breaks for the sake of my emotions. I remember reading Red Lotus by Pai Kit Fai. The events were so painful they tore my heart into pieces. They were too much for my heart to digest.


“Work hard. Do good. Be incredible!” That’s the advice Teresa Rae Wood gives the listeners of her popular local radio show, Modern Pioneers, and she has taken it to heart in her own life. She fled a bad marriage, escaping to Midden, Minnesota (pop. 408), where she fell in love with a carpenter who became a loving stepfather to her children, Claire and Joshua. Now Claire is away at college, Joshua is laboring through his senior year of high school, and Teresa and Bruce are working to make ends meet. Despite their struggles, their love for each other binds them as a family. Then they receive the devastating news that Teresa has cancer and at thirty-eight may have less than one year to live. Those she will leave behind face something previously unimaginable — a future without her.

In Torch, the award-winning writer Cheryl Strayed creates from one family’s shattering experience a novel infused with tenderness, compassion, and beauty.

In many ways, however, Torch isn’t as bad. True, the story is about a mother who passed away from cancer, leaving her two grown-up children and live-in partner to come to terms with their loss and grief accordingly. But there were no forms of torture in Cheryl Strayed’s book. Which still made it easier to read anyway.

All Teresa Rae Wood wants in life is to work hard, do good and be incredible. That’s what she taught her children, Claire and Joshua, to do all their lives even if she had come from a difficult marriage. Teresa and her family (including Bruce, her live-in partner) lived in a small town called Midden in Minnesota. A quirky yet simple woman with a radio talk show of her own called Modern Pioneers, Teresa shared most of her family’s lives on air with the many listeners in Midden, from the way they did things to the tips and tricks she came up with to make living easier.

Until she was diagnosed with cancer and learnt that she only has months to live. Unable to face the prospect of their mother’s losing battle with cancer, Claire and Josh turn to a host of unimaginable yet common ways of dealing with her impending death.

Claire had been the downright emotive member of the Wood family. She was extremely expressive and wore her heart on her sleeve. She cried. She yelled. She hurt all over. She tried to fill the empty void and cover her wounds with an affair. That affair tore her relationship with her boyfriend apart. They went their separate ways and she was left to pick up the pieces. She tried again when she moved into a home as a tenant and tried yet again with another man to no avail. That didn’t work either.

As for Joshua, he was keen on avoidance. He couldn’t bring himself to visit the hospital during his mother’s final days even though she had asked for him. He eventually found solace in drugs and alcohol, dealing and abusing them to numb his anguish. Not too soon after his mother’s passing, he fell in love with a girl from school whom he impregnated after his mother’s death.

Bruce, on the other hand, was not entirely guilt-free. He vowed to kill himself after his wife’s funeral but it wasn’t meant to be when he started seeing another woman, with a false belief that she would be able to erase or replace his love and memory for his late wife. Despite his grief, he knew he needed some form of female companionship to fight his emotional turmoil, the acute pain of sadness and loneliness. Needless to say, it was hard for Claire and Joshua to accept that their stepfather was moving on too soon.

In the events after Teresa’s death, author Cheryl Strayed showed how grief can divide people when they needed each other the most. The family she portrayed lost its center and grip on reality after Teresa’s death as Bruce, Claire and Josh pushed and pulled at one another, reaching out with touching fingertips and only finding the barest minimum of comfort and connection.

Throughout the entire novel, the trio faced and dealt with reality without Teresa, their emotions a mess as they struggled to communicate their grief. They may have been a close knit family yet the sharing of such intimate emotions did not come easy for them. What began as a somewhat depressing stage on death eventually transformed into a heroic story of courage, bravery and resilience. As they always say, things will get better.

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