Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading
How one woman used books to cope with her sister's death.
An avid reader isn’t necessarily a deep writer. This may be the key to the profound limitations of Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, an amateur memoir of loss pegged to her eldest sister’s death. The book owes its subtitle to acclaimed journalist and novelist Joan Didion’s own 2005 account of exquisite grief at the deaths of both her husband and daughter, in “The Year of Magical Thinking." But Sankovitch boasts none of Didion’s brilliance – at least, not as an author.Skip to next paragraph
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Trained as an attorney, Sankovitch, 48, does her due diligence in this stolid recapping of the 12 months that she spent reading a book a day, as a salve for losing an adored sibling to cancer several years before. Every tome that she picks up is exhaustively detailed, along with any similarity that its heroine bears to her idealized late sister, Anne-Marie.
Not that Sankovitch isn’t bright; she earned her J.D. at Harvard. But a lack of independent thought marks her narrative of the family life created in the US by her Catholic immigrant parents – an academic and a doctor from Belgium and Belarus, respectively – along with her parroting of their tales of suffering endured by European relatives during World War II, all without wonder at their conclusions.
On learning that three of her father’s siblings were executed by partisans while his mother hid in an adjoining room, Sankovitch never asks an obvious question: Why didn’t she intervene? Instead, the lawyer offers what sounds like a sermon. Her grandmother was “unable to save them,” she says of her aunt and uncles, then intones, “But remembrance is the bones around which a body of resilience is built.”
Exculpating explanations aside, if survivor guilt is a family legacy that’s dropped by one generation onto the shoulders of the next, then the weight of it seems to have settled on Sankovitch. What drives her memoir is an outsized sense of responsibility for her sister’s death – or at least, for enduring when her more meritorious sibling (in Sankovitch’s view) cannot. “Why do I deserve to live?” she moans.
It’s a question that spurs her to seek comfort in a regimen of reading. “I was reminded of Anne-Marie in the characters I was meeting,” Sankovitch swoons. “She was the kind of heroine authors like to put in their books, with her quiet strength and resilience, her utter lack of petty or trivial concerns, and the superlative combination of her beauty and her intelligence,” the author continues. “Anne-Marie had her negative traits, but even those always seemed to me to be ubertraits.”