For years, Sara Swerdlow was transported by an unfettered sense of immortality. Floating along on loving friendships and the adoration of her mother, Natalie, Sara’s notion of death was entirely alien to her existence. But when a summer night’s drive out for ice cream ends in tragedy, thirty-year-old Sara — “held aloft and shimmering for years” — finally lands.
Mining the intricate relationship between love and mourning, acclaimed novelist Meg Wolitzer explores a single, overriding question: who, finally, “owns” the excruciating loss of this young woman — her mother or her closest friends? Depicting the aftermath of Sara’s shocking death with piercing humor and shattering realism, Surrender, Dorothy is the luminously thoughtful, deeply moving exploration of what it is to be a mother and a friend, and, above all, what it takes to heal from unthinkable loss.
So I’m leaving my comfort zone with this one, but recent life circumstances have made it hard for me to read YA, where a lot of the focus is on beginnings and love and things like that. So I’m branching out. This book is about the opposite of beginnings: Sara Swerdlow is dead, which is something she never thought could happen to her (the human condition, right? We don’t like to consider our own mortality). Sara, who sounds like a Mary Sue from the very beginning, has been drifting through life for awhile. She is very close to her mother, Natalie, but seems ambivalent about it, she is a grad student in what I think is Japanese language, and she has given up on love, probably because, to Sara, love means sex and physical gratification. Everyone loves Sara, who is shy, but witty, blonde, thin, and everything you ever wanted your Mary Sue to be. Even her best friend, a gay man named Adam, wishes he was straight so he could love her and marry her and have children with her. It’s all a little bizarre. Sara dies in the first chapter, though, and her mother is sent into a spiral of grief. Wolitzer describes grief very well, or at least, her description is very close to how I’ve experienced it:
That was what death had done: It had taken away the possibility of complex and sustained thought, leaving her simpleminded, with basic, constantly shifting needs. The only complex topic she could think about was her daughter’s death, and that was too awful, so she shut her mind off, let it lie slack.
So that was the good, relatable part of this strange story, but it still didn’t really work for me. There is a dreamy quality to the writing that I liked as well, but I didn’t really connect with the material or the phrasing. Even the title, and the story behind it, was odd and silly to me.
Everyone in this novel is slightly unlikable, from Sara’s two best friends, Adam and Maddy, to Sara’s mother, Natalie. Sara herself is unlikable, at least to me. Grief reduces you to basic emotions, that’s true, and selfishness is a natural part of it in order to heal, but I get the feeling these people were all a little insufferable even before they lost Sara. Sara herself is not this goddess her friends seem to think she is; she has, in fact, done some pretty bad things. I can sort of see why her mother worshiped her, or at least felt like Sara was the best thing in the world; Natalie was divorced in middle-age and Sara, her only child, became the center of Natalie’s universe. She depended on Sara as a constant, the way I think most parents do. Parents expect to die before their children these days. I was also less than impressed by the depiction of Peter and Maddy’s marriage, which seemed so cliche, especially the bits about how Maddy imagines Peter’s sexual desire for her decreased after he witnessed her give birth to their child. Maddy doesn’t even want to be married to Peter without Sara around to talk to about it. The whole thing was really weird, especially because I still didn’t really get what was so great about Sara at all.
I quit reading this book when Adam’s boyfriend gets woken up by the baby and can’t fall back asleep for fear of AIDS. AIDS is brought up in reference to the gay characters so superfluously and unnecessarily that it confused me. I found I just wasn’t interested anymore in learning how these people got through their grief. In the end, it turned out this book just wasn’t for me.