Miriam Toews

All My Puny Sorrows

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All My Puny Sorrows Summary

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All My Puny Sorrows is a novel by Canadian author Miriam Toews, first published in 2014. Heavily inspired by events from Toews’ life, it focuses on Elfrieda and Yolandi Von Riesen, the only children of an eccentric family from a conservative Mennonite community. Yolandi, the novel’s narrator, is a single mother and struggling writer with a troubled life, while Elfrieda is a wildly successful concert pianist with a happy home life. However, Elfrieda deals with deep depression and suicidal urges, and Yolandi may be the only one who can save her sister. Exploring themes of mental illness, family legacy, and the unique bond between sisters, All My Puny Sorrows is one of Toews’ most acclaimed books. It received highly positive reviews across the board, and was nominated for multiple awards. It won the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the 2015 Folio Prize for Literature, and the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize.

All My Puny Sorrows begins as Elfrieda, nicknamed Elf, is hospitalized after a failed suicide attempt with an overdose of painkillers. Her mother, Lottie, found her and got her to the hospital in time, but this is not Elf’s first suicide attempt. She previously tried to starve herself. Her sister Yolandi, nicknamed Yoli, has flown to Winnipeg from Toronto to help the family, which includes Elf’s husband Nic. They send Lottie on a cruise so she can rest and they can focus on Elf. Yoli is in the middle of divorcing her second husband Dan, and is dealing with the situation by seeing two men at the same time—a lawyer, Finbar, in Toronto and a violinist, Radek, back home. She tries to help Nic figure out how to help Elf, but Elf is stubbornly refusing to take her meds and seems to want to die. When Lottie returns from her cruise, Elf seems to be doing better and wants to return to her life as a concert pianist. Music has always been the only thing that made her happy. With Elf doing better, Yoli must go back to Toronto. Her son Will has been looking after her fourteen-year-old daughter Nora, but now needs to return to college. Yoli is unsure if Elf is actually doing better or is just telling everyone what they want to hear, but she doesn’t know what else to do. Hearing that their Aunt Tina will be helping Lottie keep an eye on Elf, she returns home to find that Nora now has a boyfriend living with her. Yoli agrees to let him stay as long as they don’t share a room.

However, it’s not long before Yoli has to fly back to Winnipeg. Elf has attempted suicide again. This time Tina and Lottie found her after she slit her throat and drank bleach. Claudio, Elf’s agent, calls off her tour, and when Yoli gets to the hospital she’s shocked by what she finds. As soon as Elf is able to talk again, she asks Yoli to take her to Switzerland so she can undergo assisted suicide. Elf wants to die, but she doesn’t want to die alone. While Yoli is horrified, she keeps thinking about the idea. While Elf heals, Yoli finalizes her divorce, and Aunt Tina suffers a heart attack and is hospitalized. Her condition worsens and it’s determined that she needs open-heart surgery. Her husband and oldest daughter fly from Vancouver to be by her side. The doctors are optimistic about the surgery, but there are complications and she goes into organ failure and dies. Yoli and Lottie fly to Vancouver to attend her funeral. Yoli then returns to Toronto to care for her daughter. The hospital staff assures Yoli they’ll keep Elf safe, and she makes plans to bring her to Toronto after she’s released. Yoli hopes that the change of scenery will give Elf something to live for, but she promises to take her to Switzerland if she truly has no hope.

In Toronto, Yoli tries, and fails, to get a loan to cover the costs of the trip to Switzerland. Elf has more money, but wants to keep the trip a secret from Nic and can’t access their joint accounts. Yoli attempts to publish a new book to earn the necessary money, but suffers writer’s block. She’s worried that if she doesn’t hurry up, Elf will take matters into her own hands. It becomes harder and harder to reach Elf by phone. Back in Winnipeg, Elf convinces the nurses that she’s doing better and gets them to issue her a day pass from the hospital for her birthday. She meets with Nic, they have a nice lunch, and then she asks him to pick up some books from the library for her. Instead of returning to the hospital, she goes to the railroad tracks and throws herself in front of a train. Yoli, Nora, and Will all rush to Winnipeg for the funeral. Afterwards, Lottie suffers a heart attack and decides to move to Toronto when she recovers. Elf left Yoli her life insurance money, which Yoli uses to buy and renovate a house in time for Lottie’s arrival. Lottie, struggling with her grief, throws herself into the community at her new church. Yoli is still filled with rage and repeatedly calls the hospital in Winnipeg, demanding to know why they let her sister go. Lottie eventually confronts her and convinces her to move on. At Christmas, Nic pays a visit and they celebrate Elf’s life. The final scene is Yoli dreaming of the trip to Switzerland she and Elf were going to take.

Miriam Toews is a Canadian author, and one of the country’s most acclaimed writers. A winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, she is the author of six novels and a memoir, and played a lead role in the 2007 film Luz silenciosa. The film and many of her novels deal with the culture of the Mennonite faith.