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by Claudia Sternbach

Pub Date: Dec. 3rd, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-953469-98-4
Publisher: Unruly

In this memoir, a woman mourns her sister through unsent letters to loved ones and celebrities.

The death of her sister, Carol, shook Sternbach to the core. It caused a rift in the family that left the author estranged from another sister as well as Carol’s wife. At the insistence of her husband, the depressed Sternbach went to speak to a therapist. The doctor, who was dying of cancer, the same disease that had taken Carol, gave the author a homework assignment: “Who, he wanted to know, had added to my life. Not just the obvious choices, he said, but those who have helped shape me, guide me in unexpected ways. ‘What would you say to them if you could?’ he asked. ‘What would you say to Carol?’ ” Sternbach set about writing letters of gratitude to the people—intimates and strangers, living and dead—who had helped buoy her over the years, starting with Vermeer. A copy of the artist’s famous painting Girl With a Pearl Earring hung in her therapist’s office. The author wrote to Goldie Hawn to thank her for the movie Butterflies Are Free, which played on the first airline trip of Sternbach’s career as a flight attendant. The author wrote to Leonard Cohen, whose music she listened to on the drive to visit her mother in a nursing home. She wrote to controversial figures like O.J. Simpson, fictional characters like Carrie Bradshaw, and, of course, to Carol, attempting to make sense of her loss and what it meant for Sternbach moving forward. The author’s prose veers from rueful and vulnerable to bouncy and wry, as here in her letter to Woody Allen, whose controversial marriage to Soon-Yi Previn was somewhat similar to Sternbach’s father’s marriage to his ex-wife’s niece. “Oh, dear Woody,” writes the author, “you have made me feel as if I am not the only person on the planet with a colorful family history. I thank you for that.” This is an odd book, with the memoiristic fan letters sitting uneasily beside the mournful missives to Carol. Perhaps because of this, the sneaky way the work builds toward its moment of catharsis is all the more potent.

A powerful, idiosyncratic account that uses letters as a microscope for grief.