The Book of Dahlia
By Elisa Albert
Free Press, 288 pages, $23.
It sounds almost like the beginning of a terrible joke: What happens when a 29-year-old who has wasted much of her life gets a brain tumor? Except that instead of a joke, this is the premise of Elisa Albert’s new novel, “The Book of Dahlia”. Albert, author of the short-story collection “How This Night Is Different,” has taken on one of the most essential and universal questions: How do you face the end of your own life?
And yet, the titular Dahlia is anything but universal. Raised both spoiled and deprived by divorced parents (an indulgent father, Bruce, and an irresponsible Israeli mother, Margalit), Dahlia is negative, lazy and highly critical. Her relationship with her only brother, Danny — who is described as both the “prodigal son” and the worst brother “since Cain” — has dissolved into mutual hatred and contempt. She has alienated all her friends. Dahlia is, essentially, alone.
To guide herself through the process of dealing with her illness, she finds a book that promises to help with her “cancer to-do list.” Having none of the good attitude everyone says will be so important for her survival, Dahlia takes the advice to heart even as she fights every step of the way. Accompanied by a cheery self-proclaimed self-help guru, she reviews the whole of her life, and the reader comes along for the ride, watching as Dahlia learns painful lessons about the cost of emotional vulnerability (even as she’s materially supported beyond compare).
Readers familiar with Albert’s earlier work will notice some similarities: the disjointed sibling relationship, profoundly out-of-touch mothers and a gloss on both Judaism and American Jewishness that is unmistakable. The narrative jumps around in time, returning again and again to certain familiar elements: a sublime blue door, a classmate who died very young, the mind-numbing effort of the GREs.
The Jewishness of Dahlia’s journey is both obvious and subtle. There’s her Israeli mother, whose mangled syntax is a pleasure to read, especially with Dahlia’s mocking commentary. There are the 18 chapters through which Dahlia passes (signaling another play on the theme of life and death), the fact that brother Danny is a rabbi and the title, which positions Dahlia like Ruth or Esther, a woman of note within the Jewish canon. But while the entire text is marked by soul-searching, there’s very little formal Judaism. Rather, “The Book of Dahlia,” steeped as it is in our present day (references to iPods, the September 11, 2001, attacks and the current state of the New York City subway system abound), is more like a sociological overview. Dahlia is an excellent vehicle for comments about materialism, the decidedly unspiritual conduct of her clergy brother, the ravages of divorce, Israeli-American relationships and much more. That her responses to these situations are complex is what lets Albert develop her characters so well.
For all that Albert exhibits in technical skill, with lovely circular writing that narrows in on its eventual subject, by the end of the book this skill feels somewhat beside the point. At the heart of “The Book of Dahlia” is humanity itself, and the stark realities of the eventual common end. Like the flower that shares her name, Dahlia is slow to open up, but eventually she does, and we see her as up close as possible: “Dahlia prepared for death the way stewardesses pantomime emergency protocol: bored, distracted, disconnected, a mask of seriousness and duty over a deep valley of uncertainty and — buried way, way, way down — fear.” Our intimacy with her flaws makes us care about her, and her story, and her deeply human responses to any number of really tough scenarios. As Dahlia’s physical condition deteriorates, we are very much there, and it’s a remarkably affecting read. That appears to be Albert’s particular genius: She cultivates an emotional bond even with her heroine, not despite Dahlia’s human defects but because of them.
Melanie Weiss is the assistant editor of Lilith magazine and a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.