In Dahlia’s Wake by Yona Zeldis McDonough

In Dahlia's Wake by Yona Deldis McDonough

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover, 292 pages, 2005

Rating: 8/10

Reason for Reading: I was in the mood for something a little sad, maybe with a side serving of drama.

Synopsis: Six months ago, a seven-year-old girl named Dahlia died in a freak car accident, leaving behind her distraught parents. Her mother, Naomi, finds an odd comfort in volunteering at the hospital where her daughter was pronounced dead. She also feels drawn to Michael, the married doctor that told her the terrible news, feeling that he’s in a position to understand her loss because he’s forced to deal with death every day, and yet he doesn’t seem hardened to it. Naomi’s husband, Rick, is desperate to shake off his pain for even a few hours and finds his escape in the arms of his secretary, Lillian, a single mother. Can what remains of this grieving family be salvaged, or will Dahlia’s death set off a domino effect of ruined lives and destroyed loves?

Why you should read this book: A lot of authors would see the topic of a tragically killed girl as a pathway to manipulative sentimentally and twenty-page sobbing fits, but McDonough can be commended for pulling together a much tighter, more intriguing story than one might expect. Naomi and Rick don’t just sit around and brood; they’re acting out and struggling to define a new life without their daughter. In addition to Naomi and Rick’s narrations, we get first person accounts from Michael and Lillian, the people the heart-broken parents are threatening to bring crashing down with them. Some of the story’s most touching moments actually come from the narration of Naomi’s mother, Estelle, who’s living in a retirement home to get care for her growing dementia. Because of her fading memory, Naomi decided telling her about Dahlia’s death would just distress herself further and without purpose, as Estelle seemed likely to immediately forget. However, Estelle does remember Dahlia – and she’s determined to escape the retirement home to go and visit her, despite her confusion about many other things, like directions and money. In Dahlia’s Wake is a great book for people interested in how devastation and loss can completely change relationships, or by the hope that pushes people to keep trying to stay together. A compelling story full of complexities, desperation, and passion.

Why you should avoid this book: This is a potentially sensitive topic for some people, and probably not something you’ll read to put you in a cheery, upbeat mood, obviously. The ending feels a little forced, as if McDonough was targeting a high school English class that will be told to write an essay on significance and symbolism. You might find yourself rolling your eyes a bit at the overdone irony in the ending, but it’s forgivable in light of the strength of the rest of the story.

Opening paragraph:

On a Friday morning in early December, Naomi Wechsler walked up Seventh Avenue, head bent slightly forward, umbrella positioned in front of her like a shield. It was wet and sleety and the umbrella kept getting pulled out by gusts – brief but sharp – of winter wind. Still, Naomi prevailed. She was on her way to Holy Name of Jesus Hospital for her morning in the pediatric ward, and she didn’t want to get soaked. The three mornings a week she spent at Holy Name had become the scaffolding on which her days were precariously balanced. Naomi was scrupulous about honoring her commitment there; in some small way, it was what kept her going.

Fabulous quotes:

Estelle had not thought about how crowded the streets would be. So many people. And they were all moving so quickly. The gum-cracking young woman pulling a snowsuit-clad child along by the hand; the tall black man with the impeccably cut coat and the heavy leather case that banged his thigh as he walked; the teenage girls whose jackets were open, despite the cold, and whose electric-colored backpacks – hot pink, neon green, Day-Glo orange – seemed too heavy for their young bodies. All of them had somewhere to go, somewhere to be. So did Estelle. Her final destination – Brooklyn – and her purpose – to find Dahlia – propelled her forward, even if she wasn’t certain of the actual path she would need to follow.

Naomi hurried up the hill to her job at the hospital, shivering and cursing; it was hard not to feel each tug of the wind against her coat as a personal affront, each drop of stinging, frigid rain, as an attack.
She limped through the first weeks of Rick’s absence, hardly able to believe he was really gone. Even though she was the one who had told him go, she still felt abandoned and bereft. First Dahlia, and now Rick. She had been so angry with him, she hadn’t realized how his leaving would affect her: it was like losing Dahlia all over again, because he was the other person on earth to feel Dahlia’s loss as deeply as she did. Why had he cheated on her? Because she had lost interest in sex, in the pleasure of her body joining with his? Was that all it was? Couldn’t he have waited, been more patient? She would have come out of it, had he just given her the time.

Also recommended: The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson; Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards; Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani; The Effects of Light by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore.

Also by this author: The Four Temperaments; The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty (editor/contributor); All the Available Light: A Marilyn Monroe Reader (editor).

Author’s website:

Fun tidbit: McDonough also writes children’s books, letting them express a different side of her personality than her novels.

Would I read more by this author? Yep, but the ‘when’ would depend on being in the right mood for it.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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