We owe it to each other to tell stories - Neil Gaiman

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair - Nina Sankovitch

Title: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

Subtitle: My Year of Magical Reading

Author: Nina Sankovitch

Publisher: Harper Perennial

Pages: 240

Source: bought

The Synopsis

Caught up in grief after the death of her sister, Nina Sankovitch decided to stop running and start reading. For once in her life she would put all other obligations on hold and devote herself to reading a book a day: one year of magical reading in which she found joy, healing, and wisdom.

With grace and deep insight, Sankovitch weaves together poignant family memories with the unforgettable lives of the characters she reads about. She finds a lesson in each book, ultimately realizing the ability of a good story to console, inspire, and open our lives to new places and experiences. A moving story of recovery, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is also a resonant reminder of the all-encompassing power and delight of reading. 

The Review

Whilst I had been aware of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair for quite a while, I only recently took it off of my 'to buy' list and put it onto my 'own' list. I ordered this book to help me cope with the looming death of my sister, and whilst it was supposed to arrive at the end of July, it came on the day after my sister died. A message from the universe? Undoubtedly. This book was what I needed to take the first steps to recovery after the loss.

It is no secret that bookish folk like me look to books for the cues and expected reactions, and advice for how to react to things. I don't need to expand on this, but for those who do not understand what all reading gives us, I have to tell you. Reading is more than just an idle activity to pass by time. Those who read are not lazy. Reading is not used to hide away. Reading gives the reader so much more than a non-reader could know. Reading makes you more insightful and compassionate. Reading provides you with skills and insight. But now I feel like I am arguing, and that is the last thing I want to do. Also, I am digressing - what I am trying to say is that reading arms you with more knowledge and skills than watching TV or movies.

I felt particularly drawn to Tolstoy and the Purple Chair because the author and I had 2 things in common. 1. We both lost sisters to cancer. 2. We are both avid readers. Not very many people are willing to speak candidly of death and loss. I have mentioned this before in a previous post so I am not going to rehash that. This book, for me was almost like a guide for recovery, some hope in a dark time, and a friend that understood. Having said that, I did notice a flurry of posts around the blogosphere on Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, and the reviews I have read have been a mixed response to it. Having said that, I believe that at a certain time in your life, no matter how much you want to read a book, if it is not the right time for you, or you do not share the situation with the author, you are not going to be the ideal reader and you are not going to get the full value of the book.

The ideal reader for Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is obviously someone who enjoys reading, but aside from that the ideal reader has to have experienced a loss that they are presently dealing with, or should have experienced a loss that affected them greatly. This book is not meant to share only the author's experience, but it is meant as a part of a club that you can only join once you have lost someone close to you. If this is not you right now, do not read this book as you won't get what you are supposed to from  it.

The purpose of this book is two fold: 1. It gives you hope for your recovery from loss in sharing Nina's loss of her sister. She shares her insights, and one of my favourite lines in  the book is when she says that amidst the  sadness that you feel, you will still be surprised by the beauty that the world has to offer. This was something that I needed to hear, or in this case needed to read. This has been a point of reference, and it reminds me greatly of the words that J.K. Rowling gave to Dumbledore:

Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.

2. This book gives you something more to  think about as a reader. Why does reading mean so much to you? What does reading offer you other than an escape and a journey to another world? It allows you the reader as an avid reader the opportunity to see reading once again for the amazing activity that it is, and reminds you what reading means to you and the healing it can offer.

Books allow experiences to be relived, and allow lessons to be learned. P137

Nina Sankovitch was very lucky to be able to take a year out of life, and make reading a priority. I think it is a marvellous thing, because books can help you, books can heal you, books can show you the rainbow that was previously just dark clouds. But not just the cathartic and healing effect of reading, also the healing effect of blogging - your mind can become rather bogged down by all the thoughts that you fail to express. In blogging we share what a book has made us feel and see, we share it with online friends who often understand better than real life ones. This expression of the lessons we have learnt through the books that we have read often has blogging as our only platform - and Nina used her site ReadAllDay as her platform and her map on her road to healing. But then you all know that, and I am just preaching to the choir... 

And in reading, I discovered that the burden of living is the uneven and unlimited allotment of pain. Tragedy is conferred randomly and unfairly. Any promise of easy times to come is a false one. But I know I can survive the hard times, taking the worst of what happens to me as a burden but not as a noose. Books mirrored life - my life! And now I understood that all the bad and sad stuff happens to me, and that happened to the people I was reading about, is both the cost and the proof of resilience. P138

My only critique is that I wish the paperback and hardcover covers were the same!


  1. Oh, Terri. I'm so sorry to hear about your sister. x

    I agree with everything you've said here. I read this book about a month ago and was comforted and warmed by it because I lost my father -- and thus understand the loss and the search and the yearn for healing.

    1. Thank you Jillian, and I am sorry about the loss of your father. It often takes a book like this to make us realise what we already sort of knew.

  2. I'm so sorry to hear about your loss.

    I loved this book when I read it. It touched me deeply and helped me come to terms with some things I was dealing with at the time. I loved this line, in particular, "We cannot control events around us, but we are responsible for our reactions to those events," (191).

    1. Thank you, Allie.

      I love that passage, it is one of many that I marked.


What did you think? I would love to read your comments.