Meghan O'Rourke, 35, has a literary reputation. She began her career at the New Yorker, was a longtime editor at the pioneering online magazine Slate, was a poetry editor for the Paris Review until just recently, and won praise for her first book, Halflife (Norton, 2007), a collection of poems. Her first book of prose (The Long Goodbye, Riverhead) should bring her more attention, though in a way that may be bittersweet.
It's a memoir that began as a series of columns for Slate, a heartbreaking, almost moment-by-moment account of the death by cancer of O'Rourke's mother, Barbara, on Christmas day, 2008, as well as of the grief that followed for O'Rourke and her family. The book is also an intelligent sociological examination and critique of contemporary America's lack of meaningful rituals to cope with death. The combination of these two threads—the personal and the analytical—written with a poet's attention to language, brings something new to the genre of grief memoirs (in which O'Rourke has some pretty accomplished predecessors, including C.S. Lewis and Joan Didion), a kind of thinking person's mourning that has no less heart for being smart.
It's easy to fall a little bit in love with O'Rourke's mother, as she's portrayed by an obviously deeply devoted daughter. As O'Rourke paints her, Barbara is tough but unafraid to be vulnerable, loving but not smothering. She constantly urges O'Rourke and her two brothers toward individuality, and she can, for instance, scold her daughter for sneaking out and still be utterly charming: "Now get out of my sight, sweetheart," she says to Meghan, "and don't lie to me again." And it's easy to believe in O'Rourke as she portrays herself: also vulnerable, suffering each blow of her mother's illness and eventual death, exposing that suffering to us, but not so we'll feel sorry for her.
"What I didn't want the book to be was just an account of my suffering that pretends it's important simply because I suffered," says O'Rourke. " I wanted to write a book about how writing, how the act of making, is redemptive. But I felt that the honest act of making was intimate and raw." She also followed the old writer's maxim that one should write the book one wants to read. "The book I needed when my mother died was not a book of pure reflection," she says, "but a book that both summoned up what it was like when it was happening, because that's the thing I had no access to, but also that showed that you would come out of the suffering somehow, that it would change."
O'Rourke hopes the book will help its readers: "You have to not give all of yourself away, but still be responsive to your reader." The Long Goodbye is not about happy endings. This is a complex work, which concludes, finally, that we never quite get beyond our losses so much as incorporate them into a world that ultimately becomes larger because we've loved and lost—and grieved: "I imagined loss as a drop off this cliff, but actually it's the same world as before, except there's a note in it that's deeper," says O'Rourke. She says, too, that "the beautiful parts of life get bigger."
And it's difficult to be out there with such a painful story, which is, after all, still fresh. "There are passages I read that make me uncomfortable to think about being in public. But I really felt they needed to be there," O'Rourke says. "I feel exposed, but I also felt it was important to expose myself."
It's precisely O'Rourke's vulnerability that makes her book so affecting. "People are scared of this topic. There's a real repression of it. That repression is not evil, it's not malevolent, but it's there, it's subtle, and it's very difficult for the mourner, so I feel passionate about speaking out."