A Review of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch
Imagine this. You get the opportunity to read a book a day for an entire year and to write a review of that book the next morning. Your work life, your family life, everything works together to allow you to accomplish this feat. What books would you read? This is exactly what Nina Sankovitch does in her memoir Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.
The book starts out with the death of Sankovitch’s sister. It is a quick illness and unanticipated death that leads to her decision to spend a year reading. She uses this year of reading to process her grief over her sister’s death. It has been a couple of years, and she has been avoiding confronting the grief. The sisters shared a love of reading and of books, so she decides to use books to help her understand the loss.
There are several highlights in this book that make it worth reading. I remembered these moments from when I initially read the book several years ago. Sankovitch does an excellent job of explaining how she used the books to process her grief over the loss of her sister. She makes connections to lessons learned from different books.
She learns several lessons about grief as she starts working her way through the books she is reading. You can see her processing different stages of grief, but most of the book is spent in the acceptance stage. When she slows down and stops trying to be “on the go” in every moment of her life to avoid feeling, she is finally able to process the pain and the grief.
She also learns more about the beauty of human life. She says:
There is always an answer to despair, and that is the promise of beauty waiting in the future.
— Nina Sankovitch, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair
She starts seeing that beauty in the world around her. As she is reading on the beach, sitting in her cat-stained purple chair, sitting on her deck, in a tree that needs to be moved to the backyard. But mostly, she finds beauty in the books she is reading.
She also finds lessons on war, human nature, peace, guilt, forgiveness, love, fear of death, travel and vacations, but mostly, she finds lessons on kindness. For anyone who reads a lot, you learn quickly that kindness remains a theme through much of literature. Towards the end of her year of reading, Sankovitch says:
I expect acts of kindness within my family, physical and verbal demonstrations of acceptance and support from one member to another. We have our share of spats between siblings (and parents), but nevertheless, our home is the place where we all can be just who we are and expect to be loved for exactly that.
— Nina Sankovitch,Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.
The book highlights the importance of small kindnesses in helping a person to process grief, anger, and to foster important human connections.
The book does face some challenges that can make it hard for the reader to really connect with the story. Although it is a memoir, there is a bit too much “I” and “me” in the writing. Sankovitch is using the memoir to process her grief, so this is somewhat understandable. The unfortunate side effect is that the reader sometimes has trouble connecting to her experiences.
Additionally, for a book that is largely marketed as a book about books, Sankovitch only alludes to the books she read in a limited fashion. We spend far more time getting to know her family and their challenges and celebrations. In fact, most of the book comes across as a tribute to her sister. This identity crisis in her writing comes across as confusion as to the major focus of the book. Ultimately, the book would be stronger by choosing one focal point from the three that dominate: the challenges and lessons learned from a year of reading, using books to process guilt and grief, or a memoir that is written in tribute to her sister.
By far, the largest challenge that Sankovitch faces in her writing is one that she likely never realized (and never will realize). This book reeks of privilege, and this makes it incredibly difficult to connect with Sankovitch at times. We all have to process grief from time to time, but not all of us have the luxury of taking a year off and reading a book a day to process that grief.
I find myself wondering what a book would look like if a person who has to work a 40-hour-a-week job (with some overtime) tried to read a book a day. How do “normal” people with normal work lives process grief? As a single mother who has to work over forty hours a week and who does not have the luxury of taking a year off to process the things happening in my life, I can tell you we just have to get over things sometimes. I would love the luxury of a year of no work and others around me stepping in to take over various responsibilities so I could spend the majority of my time reading and writing. Instead, I have to find those times in stolen moments in my day or by getting up really early or staying up late. And I am still more privileged than most of the world. What does processing grief look like to a person who has to work 2–3 jobs to survive? What are their opportunities to read?
Additionally, it feels as if Sankovitch thinks her family is ‘special’ for their love of books. Many families spend their family time reading. As a child, if my parents asked me if I wanted to go to the toy store or the bookstore, I would inevitably choose the bookstore. We spent quite a bit of time in the library. My family was far from wealthy.
Reading this book reminded me of the challenges that my father had growing up. While my parents did everything they could to surround us with books and art, my father did not have that luxury as a child. I remember him telling me the story of the first book that he every owned. I think the book was a gift. He was attending a birthday party, and his mother made him give that book to the other child as a birthday gift. To this day, my father has trouble parting with the books that he gets. They are treasured possessions to him, and I cannot imagine ever trying to take those away given what he experienced as a child. Sankovitch has never known that kind of struggle — having to save your money to afford the books you want to read or for the bus fare to the city library because your family cannot afford it.
Early on and throughout the text, Sankovitch talks about her family’s privilege in a way that sometimes causes a disconnect with the reader. It is as if she is blissfully unaware of how the rest of the world functions:
Our family was different from other families. Our house had more books, more art, and more dust than anyone else’s.
— Nina Sankovitch, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair
Furthermore, I find myself a bit jealous of Sankovitch at times as I am reading the book. She has a room of her own and an income to support her. Virginia Woolf would expect more from someone who has those desirous circumstances. She has a room with a chair and a desk to read and write. She has a space of her own, separate from the rest of her family. I have a desk squeezed between the living room sofa and the dining room table. It is frequently stacked with books, and the books overflow from the bookshelves we can fit in our townhouse. Would I ever get rid of any of them? No. But I wish she recognized the privilege she has in this year of reading and could reflect on how others might face reality in a similar circumstance — the death of a loved one — but without the privilege and resources that Sankovitch has had her entire life. Perhaps she should add some volumes to her reading list that expose her to the realities of those who have to struggle.
Overall, I enjoyed Sankovitch’s book. I enjoyed following her through her journey as she processed her grief over her sister’s death. I just wish that she had spent more time connecting with the reader, connecting the reader to how she processed things through reading a book a day. This would have been a far stronger book. The places where she does this provide moments of connection. These are moments where I feel empathy for her and her situation, and I think about how books have helped me at different times in my life. A focus on the process of using books to grieve would have been stronger than her focus on self. Despite this, I really did enjoy the book for the most part. I also intend to ransack her reading list for books to add to my “to be read” pile.