Three middle-aged sisters collaborating on a memoir that's meant to double as their collective suicide note may not sound like a hilarious premise for a novel, but Mitchell's masterful family saga is as funny as it is aching.
Together, Lady, Vee and Delph Alter have decided that New Year's Eve, 1999—the cusp of the new millennium—will be the day they end their lives, quietly and with as little melodrama as possible. But first, they have embarked upon writing this “whatever-it-is—this memoir, this family history, this quasi-confessional.” It will record the saga of the last four generations of Alters (theirs included). Also, it will double as their joint suicide note. (“Q: How do three sisters write a single suicide note? A: The same way a porcupine makes love: carefully.”) Suicide seems to run in the Alter family, and now it has reached the current generation: Vee, the middle sister—whose beloved husband was murdered getting lunch one day at Chock full o’Nuts—has cancer, with six months to a year left. If one sister goes, they’re all going. And so begins their project, which traces the Alter family history, starting with their maternal great-grandmother, brilliant and stifled, and great-grandfather, the German-Jewish Nobel Prize–winning chemist who invented the gas that would ultimately be used in the Nazi death chambers. “He was the sinner who doomed us all,” they write, the root of the ill-fated family tree. She died (a gun in the garden); he followed suit (morphine). With variations, the subsequent generations did the same. Moving seamlessly between the past and the present, from Germany to the Upper West Side, Mitchell’s (The Last Day of the War, 2004) dark comedy captures the agony and ecstasy (but mostly agony) with deep empathy and profound wit.
For the Alters, life has been a seemingly endless series of tragedies; for us, the tragedy is that this stunning novel inevitably comes to an end.