Next to fiction, memoir is my favorite kind of book. My love for memoir attracted me to Elizabeth McCracken's An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, a book she calls the “happiest story in the world with the saddest ending”.
Indeed, it was. This book tells the story of Elizabeth's first and second pregnancies, only one of which resulted in a living child. The other, her first pregnancy, ended with the birth of her stillborn son, Pudding.
Elizabeth tells her story with authenticity and a surprising amount of humor that had me crying in one moment and laughing the next (In fact, I still laugh every time I think of the “Dwarfs of Grief”). To be clear, this does not mean that she in anyway trivializes the pain of losing someone or that she's somehow being disrespectful to those who have suffered this plight. Instead, the opposite is true. Her honest account of her pregnancy and the pain of giving birth to a stillborn child draws the reader in, while her dry wit gives even those who are themselves grieving permission to laugh, if only for a moment.
Elizabeth's account of people's responses to the death of her child also offers all those who have ever wondered how to comfort their friends a vivid lesson on how to grieve with others. In her words, “I am trying to remember what I have thought... All those times I didn't mention some great sadness upon seeing someone for the first time. Did I really think that by not saying words of consolation aloud, I was doing people a favor? As though to mention sadness I was 'reminding' them of the terrible thing? As though the grieving have forgotten their grief?” Elsewhere, she writes, “'I don't know what to say,' people wrote, or 'Words fail'. What amazed me about all the notes I got was how people did know what to say, how words didn't fail... To know that other people were sad made Pudding more real.”
Without a doubt, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is good storytelling. It's well-written, but beyond that, it's the kind of writing that makes the reader feel both Elizabeth's joy and pain and join her in wrestling with some of the most profound questions of life.