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In her early fifties Sandy Broyard lost the man she had married at 23, long-time book critic, book review editor, and essayist for The New York Times, Anatole Broyard. Standby is her memoir of the time immediately preceding her husband's death to five years later, when she had achieved a sort of peace, but was still mourning Anatole. This is Sandy's story, but Anatole is a large presence in it, and there is a sense that his rather forceful character left a larger than life imprint. The result is that Standby is like the memoir of a relationship, one partner emerging with an unfamiliar freedom overshadowed by grief.
Sandy Broyard is a trained dancer, a psychotherapist, social worker, and now writer; clearly a woman with a formidable range of talents. In 1990 her husband died of prostate cancer, a debilitating, painful, and rapidly progressive disease. The early pages of the memoir recount the effect of the illness on a proudly athletic and physical man. Reflections on the cruelty of a sudden physical decline recur as a motif throughout the book. Brought low by grief, Broyard is at times helpless as she deals with the usual raft of practical and emotional tasks that attend the death of a spouse and life as a widow. In Broyard's case she was also faced with the death of her brother in the same year and, soon after, her own surgical treatment for cancer. Death and mortality are ghostly companions that stalk the pages.
The title of the book is taken from the periods of waiting for the ferry to Martha's Vineyard where Broyard lives much of the time. Indeed "standby" is something of a metaphor for the uncertain pause in Broyard's life as she contemplates a future without her life partner. At times it seems some new normality is emerging; the possibility of a new relationship, a change in location, the resumption of her interest in dancing. But as Broyard comments in one of many reflections on the finality of death, there is no end to the loss, and no balm that can finally soothe the pain of loss. Broyard explores some fairly far out therapies, including "soul retrieval" with the shaman River. Having established that there are soul fragments which Broyard needs to reclaim, River places her mouth on Broyard's head and blows back the errant fragments. At another point Broyard talks about getting in touch with her ditzy blonde, a down to earth and self deprecating commentary on her struggle with grief.
Broyard talks a lot about her husband's writing; how important it was to him, and how driven to perfection he was. Anatole comes across as somewhat irascible. The word "impatient" is used frequently, and I had the feeling that Broyard's reflections are not those that could have easily been shared with the living Anatole. Indeed, there is a lot about Anatole that is not told in this memoir. That is understandable; a shared life will contain mysteries that are known only to those who share them. But much that is not discussed in this memoir is well known publicly, and must surely have been as pertinent in death as it was in life. Anatole Broyard was not an ordinary man, and a lifelong relationship with him must have been anything but ordinary.
There is at times a whimsical tone to Broyard's writing. Day to day accounts of mundane events are laced with childhood memories, especially of a trip to her ancestral home of Norway. The sense is that the calamity of her losses requires a thorough revision of her life. Every important memory needs to be re-experienced, as if by a new person. Events and experiences are recounted in detail and, at times, frenetically. The work feels unedited in places, with random musings attached to descriptions, showing the chance meanings that sometimes appear immanent in innocent coincidences. The style of the book captures the mood of journal notes made in unguarded moments as thoughts flood in uninvited, lead in seemingly random directions, always returning to the themes of grief and loss. There are perhaps too many reminders that Anatole wrote his own memoir, "Intoxicated by My Illness", occasioned no doubt by Broyard's work in editing Anatole's unfinished writing.
At heart Standby is a memoir of grief, a grief that is palpable on the page. It offers no remedies or simple solutions, but portrays grief as a many-sided experience; the constant companion of the bereaved. Yet even in the persistent presence of grief Broyard's memoir is a testament to continuity and resilience.
© 2007 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien is a lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: [email protected]
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