three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
user_rating: 
0

A-TorchMuch to the chagrin of her children, Teresa Rae Wood has made a name for herself in small-town Minnesota as the host of the folksy (and slightly hokey) radio show Modern Pioneers. Teresa and Bruce, her common-law husband of more than a decade, are perfectly happy raising Claire and Joshua until Teresa, only 38, is diagnosed with advanced cancer. Within seven weeks, she is gone. Teresa’s death throws the family into a tailspin: Joshua, a high-school senior, begins using and dealing drugs; Claire has an affair with an older man; and Bruce, unable to commit suicide, hastily turns to a neighbor for comfort. The hardest part of dealing with loss, the three discover, is finding something to live for.
Houghton Mifflin. 336 pages. $24. ISBN: 0618472177

Oregonian 4.5 of 5 Stars
"In her debut novel Torch, this Portland writer … astounds—producing a literary balm for those who know what it means to lose a parent. Coming on the heels of Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Torch echoes a similar theme: loss of a loved one will usher chaos into your life; it will shake you to your core; on its worst day, grief will make you absolutely crazy." Wayne Scott

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Cheryl Strayed proves a master of the little and the big, the telling details that cement the book’s larger themes in mind and memory. … Combined with her empathic skills, she has transformed these familiar family themes into an irresistibly engaging debut read." Claude Peck

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a beautiful book, expansive in its treatment of tragedy and grief, but equally attentive to all of the most telling details. The language is lovely, offering delicious, compelling imagery without being heavy-handed." Beth Schwartzapfel

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Strayed] has a light hand, delivering emotional scenes with a journalistic eye, picking out the important details without resorting to purple prose. … But the strongest parts of Torch come from Claire’s and Bruce’s perspective; it seems that while Strayed devotes much time and text to Josh’s story, it never really comes alive in the same way." Reyhan Harmanci

Chicago Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"Strayed lacks the incisiveness and clarity of a literary powerhouse like Didion, but as a work of fiction Torch has the advantage of exploring grief and mourning from multiple perspectives." Laura Ciolkowski

Denver Post 3 of 5 Stars
"An exquisite first chapter draws you into Cheryl Strayed’s new novel, Torch, about grief’s effect on a small family in a small town. … Teresa dies about a third of the way into the book, and that’s when it starts to dilute and falter." Diane Hartman

Critical Summary

Strayed’s debut novel hits with the weight of unwelcome news and tackles head-on some of the most difficult issues a family can face. Critics, who compare Torch to Joan Didion’s best-selling memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, praise Strayed’s attention to language and her ability to render grief—a topic with which she is intimately familiar, see below—through well-drawn, restrained details. Some critics comment that the narrative drags a bit after Teresa’s death. Still, Strayed, primarily an essayist before the novel’s publication ("Heroin/e," an essay about her own experience with her mother’s cancer and the author’s subsequent battle with drugs, made its way into the Best American Essays of 2000), possesses "a raw, unflinching familiarity with the rhythms of grief" (Oregonian).