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'Grief Is for People' is an idiosyncratic reflection on friendship and loss

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Sloane Crosley is celebrated for her novels "Cult Classic" and "The Clasp" and her three essay collections, all distinguished by sharp social observations and wit. Her latest book, "Grief Is For People," is an idiosyncratic memoir of loss. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: The subject of Sloane Crosley's book is as traditional as it gets. It's an elegy to her friend, former boss and mentor Russell Perreault. Until his death in 2019. Perreault was the head of publicity at Vintage Books, an esteemed publishing imprint. He hired Crosley when she was 25. As Crosley depicts him, Perreault was part-Sheridan Whiteside, the tetchy critic character from "The Man Who Came To Dinner," and part-Auntie Mame. He was the kind of boss who'd cheerfully tell a job-seeker that he would reject her because you're not fun. But he was also a practical jokester and generous host of getaway weekends for the entire office at his Connecticut farm. Quickly, Crosley and Perreault bonded, becoming for decades the kind of friends/family/whatever for which we don't have an adequate word in English.

Crosley herself struggles throughout the book to nail their relationship, which she says is both over- and ill-defined. (Reading) We are not husband and wife. We tend to think the other is exaggerating when we gripe about our families, as neither of us has been forced to spend holidays with these people. I am not his person. He has a person. And yet every man I have ever dated has felt the presence of a second father, and Russell's partner has felt the presence of a daughter.

In July of 2019, Perrault and Crosley had dinner in New York at a restaurant near her apartment. They discussed a plan where he would sleep at her apartment and take care of Crosley's cat while she went off to a literary festival. Three nights later, Perrault killed himself at the Connecticut house he shared with his partner. Did you know, people ask Crosley, seeking, as she recognizes, to manage chaos, to usher in a sense of coherence, to use me to inoculate themselves. No, she didn't know. It is said that "Grief Is For People" takes the form of a traditional elegy, but there's nothing traditional or twice-cooked about Crosley's voice, her arresting observations on being engulfed by grief. Here's a passage where Crosley, who's keeping a kind of vigil outside the restaurant where she and Perreault had their last dinner, talks about the free-floating social category of being a bereaved friend.

(Reading) To mourn the death of a friend is to feel as if you're walking around with a vase, knowing you have to set it down, but nowhere is obvious. Others will assure you that there's no right way to do this. Put it anywhere. But you know better. You know that if you put your grief in a place that's too prominent or too hidden, you will take it back when no one's looking. This is why I spend my nights looking into the restaurant. I fantasize about keeping Russell in front of me for a little longer. Each time the restaurant closes, each time he drops me off at my door, each time he walks off into the dark, and then he's gone, and I am still holding this vase.

As it proceeds, "Grief Is For People" becomes not only Crosley's elegy to Perreault, but also an elegy to the woman that for many years, Crosley thought she was in New York. Someone in the know, secure, connected. Exactly one month before Perreault's suicide, Crosley's apartment is broken into and all her jewelry stolen, including two pieces from her awful grandmother - an amber amulet the size of an apricot, and a green cocktail ring, a dome with tiers of tourmaline. Think Kryptonite, Crosley advises. Think dish soap. In a way that makes bleak, emotional sense, Crosley conflates these two ruptures in what was her life and then later in the book, adds a third that occurs in the spring of 2020, namely the pandemic's obliteration of normalcy in New York.

Eventually, Crosley tells us, I will look back on the burglary and see it for what it is - a dark gift of delineation. I know when my first bomb went off. Not everyone gets to know. Throughout, Crosley cites Joan Didion, whose two personal books on grief, "The Year Of Magical Thinking" and "Blue Nights," she obviously sees as a touchstone for her own. To me, "Grief Is For People" is every bit their equal in eloquence, intensity and toughness.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Grief Is For People" by Sloane Crosley. After we take a short break, David Bianculli will review Jon Stewart's return to "The Daily Show" and the new season of John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE EASTWOOD'S "SAMBA DE PARIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.