Friday, October 12, 2012

Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg

I have a confession to make.  I should have read this book several years ago.  I don't mean that in the, "This book was so good, I should have read it long ago!" sense either.  Back when I first started blogging, actually it's probably part of what got me going, I did the Elle Reader's Prize.  This used to involve any schmuck off the street filling out a form to apply, after which, if you were so fortunate as to be chosen, Elle Magazine would send you three books of their choice.  Then you, amateur book reviewer, would rank them and write eensy reviews of them with the chance that your very own reviewlette would appear in the magazine, which a few of mine actually did much to my excitement.  I read some great books this way, and some very terrible ones, too. 

Now, somehow I managed to do a fiction and a non-fiction jury in the same year.  I say "somehow," but this more than likely involves them asking me and me saying, "Sure, why not?" despite the fact that I'm more of a fiction girl, I mean, if you hadn't noticed.  Anywho, the whole 3 book thing went okay.  Two were great, the third was just okay but its full-length review has gotten me more blog hits than any other one post on the blog you see before you.  Then, though, then, at the end of the season there was the Grand Prix in which all 6 of the year's top books from the monthly juries would drop into your mailbox with a very limited time to read all and pick a favorite.  Turns out, when you do a non-fiction and a fiction jury, twelve excellent looking books would land on your doorstep.  This is staggeringly awesome, and also, how you say, hard to handle if you are a big, slow reader like yours truly.  I, ahem, picked a favorite, but I may have neglected to read all of my non-fiction selections.  I managed 4 out of 6 non-fiction selections, and as it turns out, I don't need to feel bad because, well, this one would not have unseated the one that I chose.  ;-)

Nonetheless, this book has been waiting on my shelves, and helpfully picked it for me.

Her Last Death is Susanna Sonnenberg's memoir of her rocky history with her mother.  It starts in what we are to take as the present when Sonnenberg has finally settled down to family life with her husband and two boys in Montana.  It's there that she gets the call that her mother has been seriously injured in car accident, and it speaks volumes from the start that when she receives the call, she doesn't believe it's true.  Sonnenberg faces the choice of whether to rush to what could be her mother's deathbed or not.  At its heart, Her Last Death is, perhaps, an excuse for why she eventually couldn't bring herself to go.  As Sonnenberg unpacks her memories of her effusive, overbearing mother who was addicted to painkillers, cocaine, and sex, who lied without a second thought, who stole her teenage boyfriends, who introduced her to cocaine at a young age, readers will find themselves ultimately sympathetic and disgusted with both mother and daughter.

I didn't love Her Last Death, but there is that certain something about it that drew me in.  Sonnenberg's writing is fluid and draws out the essence of her twisted childhood with skill.  Well-chosen anecdotes are strung together to reveal the dynamic of a dangerous mother-daughter relationship.  Sonnenberg actively loathes her mother, loves her, is frightened by her, is disgusted by her and is impressed by her.  She wants to hold her mother at a distance but has a daughter's desire to share her biggest news with her mother even if she knows hurt will follow every time she makes a connection.  Sonnenberg's memoir captivates with the same power of an Augusten Burroughs memoir, not because it's so enjoyable, but because it's well written and simply hard to look away from these train wrecks of lives so well depicted. 

I was enthralled by Sonnenberg's depiction of her early childhood with her wildly unpredictable mother.  However, as Sonnenberg herself grows to adulthood, having affairs with married teachers and escaping into meaningless sex, I lost much of what sympathy I had for her which made the latter half of the book a bigger challenge.  I was often disgusted by her behavior and unwilling to believe that her mother was at the root of the problem, which seems to be her desired angle.  Certainly, a bad mother can damage a child, but at some point, the child grows up and has to take responsibility for her own actions which it seemed to take Sonnenberg an awful long time to do.  Her Last Death is a fascinating and well-told story of a relationship, indeed it often is a well-balanced account of a mother's pros and cons, but when readers begin to lose sympathy for the memoirist, Her Last Death loses its bite.

(Does this require the old disclaimer?  I got this book for free from Elle magazine, like, four years ago in exchange for my honest opinion (which I failed to formulate because I only just read it now), but it was, well, four years ago, so who even cares?  There, we have been duly disclaimed, just in case.  ;-) )


  1. I love memoirs so this sounds good to me even if Sonnenberg and her mother are both unlikeable.

  2. I can see why the author has an adult turned you off to the book. I think I'll still give it a try though. Great review.