If I was to tell you exactly what The Sorrows are about, I’d say “grief?”, “family?”, then I’d hem and haw and eventually come up with “…life?”. The frustrating part is that it’s really good and that it’s tempting to just say: “try it yourself, you’ll understand”.
Siri Hustvedt’s novel is about as complex and as rich as her previous one I’d enjoyed a lot (even the disturbing parts), “What I loved”. But it’s also quite different. Where to start?
The narrator is Erik Davidsen, a New York psychiatrist whose family comes from the Norwegian community in Minnesota, and who has recently lost his father. When cleaning his office Erik and his sister Inga find a memoir and a mysterious note that they decide to investigate. In addition to this plot line, there are numerous other layers: Erik and his patients; Erik falling in love with the single mother he has rented out part of his house to; Inga’s daughter who is traumatized by 9/11 events she witnessed firsthand; Inga’s deceased husband, a famous novelist, who has left love letters to a young woman—his philandering literally comes back to haunt the widow when a woman tries to blackmail Inga into buying the letters back.
Bit by bit Hustvedt leads us to interrogate the perceptions we have of our loved ones (husband, father…) and the gap between those and what they really were in life, especially between their public life and their private persona.
Of course, Hustvedt knows that we readers will be peering into her own life and her husband Paul Auster’s for clues and interpretations. Hustvedt herself is from Norwegian descent, raised in Minnesota; her late father’s personal memoir serve as original material for Erik Davidsen’s father’s (what a weird arrangement!!); and her husband is also a famous novelist and they live in Brooklyn. Is that where the similarities end? We’ll never know for sure.
There’s a fine line between what could have been a neurotic, self-indulgent, navel-gazing, long-winded story and a moving, intimate and subtle story. Fortunately Hustvedt was always on the good side of the line, and I loved the book every step of the way, even if the subject of mourning made it kind of heavy.