Book review: Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

There are books that come across your path which are beautifully written and eminently readable, and which, like all good books should do, make you feel glad for having taken the time to read them.

And then there are books like Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano which go far beyond just reading, becoming a part of you in such a profound way that you are instantly richer for having taken the time to read them, your soul deeply affected in way that you can struggle to articulate in any kind of meaningful.

Which is, admittedly a problem when you seek to write about them as this reviewer is doing, but one easily overcome with some meditative reflection on what it all means.

Quite a lot, in fact.

Dear Edward tackles some intense ideas in its gorgeously, groundedly written 330 or so pages, primarily how does a person come back from trauma so all encompassing that it completely and irrevocably the landscape of their life such that returning to life as it was before is rendered impossible?

The question is even more resonant when you consider that the person grappling with loss so profound he feels like he has been hollowed out inside is a 12-year-old New Yorker by the name of Eddie who is on a flight to his new home in L.A. with his mum and dad, Jane and Bruce, and his 15-year-old brother Bruce with whom he is especially close, when the unthinkable happens and the plane and he and 190 other people are on crashing into a farmer’s field in Colorado.

“Edward wriggles beneath the papery sheets. The sensation reminds him of when he left the hospital and his body hurt in a new way, because it turned out the hospital had been an exoskeleton and without it he was vulnerable. He presses his hands against his forehead, trying to match the pressure with pressure. He’s in a hotel bed, in a strange darkness, listening to a twitchy heater mixed with his uncle’s wheezes. Edward feels unmoored, like he might be anywhere in space, anywhere in time, and anywhere is terrifying. When he manages to fall asleep, his body ejects him back into consciousness, into panic: Where am I?” (PP. 134-135)

Surviving something so horrific is challenging beyond belief if you are an adult but if you’re a kid? Unbearable.

In a matter of minutes, Eddie goes from the safe, if occasional bickering cocoon of his close-knit if flawed family to a world in which he is alone, the sole survivor of a plane crash who attracts a weird kind of attention from the relatives of the others who died on the flight, and from the world at large are morbidly fascinated that Eddie survived when so many did not.

If that spotlight of attention isn’t hard enough to deal with, Eddie has to move to New Jersey to live with his aunt Lacey (Jane’s more suburban sister) and his uncle John, a transition which feels a thousand kinds of wrong because how can anyone ever replace his mum and dad and Jordan?

Yes, Lacey and John are family but they are not HIS family, and Eddie, now christened Edward by his new parents, finds adjusting to this unpalatable new reality as difficult and traumatic as you might expect.

The one saving grace for Edward, who takes quite a while to recover from his physical and existential injuries, is next door neighbour Shay with whom he forms a tight, near-inviolable bond, thanks largely due to the fact that she is a no-nonsense straight talker with whom Edward feels oddly at peace around.

Edward takes to sleeping in her room at night, unable to bear being in his bedroom in Lacey and John’s place, which is the former nursery which his aunt never got to use due to a series of miscarriages, all of which took an enormous toll on her.

Ann Napolitano (image courtesy official Ann Napolitano Twitter account)

Admirably, Napolitano isn’t tempted to inject overblown melodrama into this emotionally-charged situation, with Dear Edward infused with an authentic sense of plausible grief and its debilitating aftereffects.

Edward, despite his great, deep and abiding sense of loss doesn’t become some nasty grieving nightmare nor do Lacey and John try to be his new parents; everyone is painfully aware that what happened is so catastrophically awful that bouncing back from it is not something anyone does.

When the loss is this great and the grief this deeply ingrained into your psyche, the way back is slow and uncertain and Napolitano beautifully explores what this means for Edward who exhibits his grief in quiet, strange ways and who attempts to deal with it but wearing as many of Jordan’s clothes as he can and by remaining acutely aware of how much he has lost without his parents, and especially his brother, close by.

It is hard to not to be warmed by Edward’s self-awareness and his painful consciousness of what he has lost and how little idea he has of how to make anything better, assuming that is even possible which in the initial aftermath of Edward’s grief, doesn’t seem likely.

The grief in Dear Edward feels real because Napolitano doesn’t pretend for one moment, not one word or page, that it just vanishes in a set period of time or that it can be easily circumscribed or deal with easily.

In fact, years after the event when Edward is the same age as Jordan was when he died, he remains grief-stricken about his brother’s loss, robbed of the one person with whom he thought he would journey through the entirety of his life.

“Edward tightens his seatbelt, as if in protection against the memories.

‘Do you have a plan?’ Shay says. ‘Are we just going to meet her?’

Edward shrugs. All he knows is that he has to lay eyes on Mahira, for two reasons. First, because Jordan would want to see her. Second, because she is the only living person—other than him—who deeply, specifically, loved his brother. he lost Jordan, and she did too.” (P. 272)

It’s not that things don’t get better, they do, with Edward growing into his new life, his closeness with Shay and even finding positive ways to deal with the letters sending by the sackload from the grieving relatives of the dead, which initially feel like an added weight of grief but soon become a part of his liberation from the endless weight of loss.

It’s simply that even when good things start to happen, there is still attendant guilt and sadness and the sense that while life is good, it would’ve been so much better with Jordan and Jane and Bruce still around.

We are also given a window into why the grief that lingers with Edward is so longlasting by way of alternating chapters in the book which us through what was happening on the plane prior to the crash; we get to see Edward as he was with his family but we also get to meet a number of the other passengers whose stories are incredibly compelling and help to amplify how great a loss the plane crash encompasses and why, even when things are improving, that Edward can remain so weighed down.

Dear Edward is uplifting, brutally honest, tear-inducing sad and hopeful, a novel so richly conceived and executed, so infused with the truth of the human condition under cataclysmic duress, that you can help but be mightily affected by it in ways that take far beyond being another book you read and something that stays with you long after you sadly turn the last page (“sadly” because you want to stay forever with dear, sweet, honest Edward who is as memorable a character as any I’ve come across).

This book affected me so immeasurably because I’ve been wrestling with my mum’s death in November 2019, and while the book’s subject matter is a world away from my experience in one sense, the big questions of how do you live when people desperately precious to you have died are the same, and this beautiful, insightful, sweet, thoughtful, resonant book tackles them with such grace and sensitivity and grounded truthfulness that it strikes homes in ways so real and deeply reassuring that it burrows into your marrow and stays there and you are all the richer for it.

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