cover image The Book of Dahlia

The Book of Dahlia

Elisa Albert, . . Free Press, $23 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-7432-9129-3

When Dahlia Finger—a 29-year-old, pot-smoking, chronically underachieving Jewish-American princess—learns that she has brain cancer, the results are hilarious and heartbreaking in Albert’s superb first novel (following the story collection How This Night Is Different ). Opening in the Venice, Calif., cottage to which Dahlia has retreated, at her father’s expense, after unsuccessfully trying to forge a life in New York, chapter one begins with the omniscient narrator’s scathingly Edith Wharton–worthy catalogue of Dahlia’s symptoms and ends with her first grand mal seizure. As Dahlia endures blistering radiation, sits numbly through her support group, smokes medical marijuana (with her crisis-reunited divorced parents) and carries a condescending book called It’s Up to You: Your Cancer To-Do List , Albert masterfully interweaves Dahlia’s battle with flashbacks, most tellingly involving her complexly overbearing Israeli mother, Margalit (“who unceremoniously imploded the family decades earlier”), and contemptuous older brother, against whom Dahlia has never learned to defend herself. Throughout, Albert delivers Dahlia’s laissez-faire attitude toward other people (men especially) and lack of ambition with such exactness as to strip them of cliché and make them grimly vivid. Her brilliant style makes the novel’s central question—should we mourn a wasted life?—shockingly poignant as Dahlia hurtles toward death. (Mar.)