cover image The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End

The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End

Katie Roiphe. Dial, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-0-385-34359-6

When acclaimed writer Roiphe (In Praise of Messy Lives) was 12, she contracted pneumonia. This book, she declares, had its origin in the hazy, fever-filled days she spent hovering between life and death. Roiphe explores, through mesmerizing storytelling, how six writers—Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and James Salter—confronted mortality. Drawing on her subjects’ writing and on interviews with their friends and loved ones, she relates how they “embraced or evaded, made peace with or raged against death.” When Sontag receives her breast cancer diagnosis, she steels herself to continue her work. Returning home after deciding on chemotherapy, Updike rests his head on his typewriter, as if resigned to never writing again, until his wife, Martha, says to him, “Just one more book.” Freud faces his final days calmly, refusing painkillers, as if collecting notes for an essay about his own death. Thomas seems almost to long for death, while Sendak expresses pure terror in his stories and drawings. When Roiphe visits Salter, who died suddenly of a heart attack months after her visit, he tells her he doesn’t think much about death. Roiphe’s riveting profiles reveal a simple truth: each person faces death in a unique way. Agent: Suzanne Gluck, WME. (Mar.)