Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch – Book Review

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins

When Nina Sankovitch’s sister died of a quickly killing cancer at the age of 46, Nina was heartbroken. Unable to figure out how life without Anne-Marie could even continue to go on, Nina was in a serious funk; certainly she was still functioning, but the day-to-day living was largely without joy, and the reality of grief was wearing Nina down, bit by bit. Finally, Nina realized she had to do something to take back her life, not to forget Anne-Marie, but to make peace with her passing, to escape the grief. It was then that she decided on a year of reading.

Books. The more I thought about how to stop and get myself back together as one sane, whole person, the more I thought about books. I thought about escape. Not running to escape, but reading to escape. –p. 20

And so Nina decided that her job, for one year of her own life, would be simply to read. She was going to read one book per day, and begin every morning by writing a review of the previous day’s book on her website, Along the way, she began to be revived by her time with books, a passion which she and Anne-Marie had always shared.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is an absolutely lovely account of the healing power of literature, of the power that books new and old have to speak to our lives today. That said, it had the potential to go very wrong, a book about all the books one person read in a year could easily be banal, a series of “and then I read… and it was….” Sankovitch managed to take the books she read and the lessons learned from them, though, and weave them together with the year of her life as well as some family history to create a cohesive and compelling narrative with many quotable lines about the power inherent in books.

Similarly risky was the structuring of the narrative with Anne-Marie’s death at the beginning. The reader does not know either Nina or Anne-Marie when their story starts, and so the grief of Anne-Marie’s passing could have fallen flat, been simply an uncomfortable truth. Instead, Nina draws the reader immediately into her family and her own feelings, to the point where you would be better off not starting this book in a public place (I nearly cried in Chipotle).

A story of individual growth and rediscovery, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair manages to avoid the trap of becoming maudlin and ridiculous as so many in that genre fall into, and instead has a note of universality for readers. Recommended.

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Source: Publisher for an episode of What’s Old is New.
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