A Book About Dying

Here's something you weren't expecting: A comic novel about a young woman who learns she has a fatal disease. As the author charts the course of her character's treatments, she also goes back in time to tell us the story of her life.

Ellen Litman
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Ellen Litman

The Book of Dahlia by Elisa Albert. The Free Press, 256 pages, $23

Dahlia Finger. Never has there been a character more ill-equipped for dying. Or living, for that matter. On the day we meet the heroine of Elisa Albert's hilarious, scathing and unexpectedly tender new novel, she is feeling sluggish and unmotivated - checking her e-mail, smoking pot, watching her all-time sentimental favorites on cable. Something might be wrong, but then again she's used to everything being "you know, wrong with her."

Consider the facts: College-educated, nearing-thirty, perpetually unemployed and unattached, living in a cottage in Venice, California, her father, Bruce, has bought for her (a reward for returning from New York), Dahlia can't even muster the energy to go on a date, let alone envision a future and a career. Maybe social work. Maybe rabbinical school. But it all seems like too much work, and the rabbinical market has already been cornered by Dahlia's despicable "ice-for-blood reptile" brother, Danny. So she goes back to her movies, her pot, her toaster pastries.

Then she has a seizure. In our cure-yourself culture, which makes recovery a function of simple perseverance and positive attitude, Dahlia's underachiever tendencies can't be good. Be warned: "The Book of Dahlia" is not the kind of book in which a girl gets an incurable brain tumor and learns an important lesson. "Everything is too easy for you. You should have some real problems," says Margalit, Dahlia's petulant Israeli mother. Lo and behold, that's exactly what Dahlia gets. And yet, the cancer fails to reform her. She remains her nihilistic, wisecracking self - an antihero of sorts - unwilling to fight for her life the way everyone expects her to.

Much of the novel's energy and lightness comes from Dahlia's irreverence, the narrative voice - Dahlia's voice essentially - that is hyperactive, unsentimental and peppered with pop culture references. In the face of her grave diagnosis, Dahlia resorts to wisecracking: "Bottom line, nobody survives a Glioblastoma" - dredging up an old chestnut from "Dirty Dancing" - "Kind of like how nobody puts Baby in a corner, dig?" She comes up with an overwrought litany of far-fetched reasons for her cancer: from deodorant and birth control to global warming and social injustice, from the people who mispronounce her name ("Duh-lia? Da-ha-la? Is that Spanish?") to the people "who wouldn't let you hold their babies." She is bubbling with anger, and much of the blame is directed at her family.

Soon after her diagnosis, Dahlia and her parents take a trip to Barnes & Noble to bone up on her disease. Once there, Bruce gravitates toward sensible titles, while Margalit goes for "The Bad Girl's Guide to Beating Cancer." Dahlia herself remains noncommittal and skeptical, until she sees her book. Titled "It's Up to You: Your Cancer To Do List," it seems too upbeat, an unlikely choice for Dahlia. But something in its cover ("an excellent bluish-green") and the author Gene Orenstein's "big dorky Jewfro" appeals to her. It's a classic love-hate story. More like a buddy than an authority, Gene infuriates Dahlia with his celebrity blurbs and his own miraculous survival story. But he is genuine too, and he does get through to her.

The shape of the novel becomes clear at this point. Each chapter of Gene's self-help opus - "Choose Life"; "Find a Support System" - is used by Albert to chart the progress of Dahlia's treatments. At the same time, she takes us back to the beginning, allowing Dahlia to reexamine her past, each chapter framing yet another installment of her story and creating in the process the book of Dahlia. The connection between Gene's chapters and Dahlia's chapters is sometimes tenuous, but the back story that emerges is sweeping and poignant. A story of a girl. A story of a generation. A story of a modern Jewish-American family.

Conceived on kibbutz Dahlia's journey begins in Israel. She is conceived on Kibbutz Dalia, where her mother (a refugee from Iraq) and her father ("your typical third-generation American Jew") spent the early years of their married life. Soon after, the family moves to the States - a decision precipitated by Margalit's growing weariness and the notion that the American lifestyle ?"a house, privacy, a lawn") will somehow comfort her.

It doesn't. By the time Dahlia - named after the kibbutz - is born, the family is living in L.A., where Bruce is now practicing law, but Margalit is growing increasingly despondent. By the time Dahlia is 8, her mother will have gone back to Israel - ostensibly for a vacation, in reality never to return except for rare visits here and there. Her absence - mysterious, painful, unexplained - derails each remaining family member and Dahlia especially. Never lacking in food, shelter or clothes, she grows up with a deficit of basic attention and love. In elementary school she is a bully. In middle school she is an outcast. By high school, she is cutting herself and contemplating suicide. No one seems to notice. The only place Dahlia is happy is in Israel - first during family vacations back when the family itself is still intact, and later when she alone as a teenager visits her mother in Tel Aviv. There, the family is large, the affection is plentiful and everybody looks like Dahlia. The sense of belonging she feels there is primal and immediate, the opposite of what she gets at her top-notch private L.A. school, where Jews are few and far between and barely recognizable. Even after Margalit gets bored with her and ships her off to the kibbutz, Dahlia isn't disappointed. She is welcome there. She works. One gets a sense she might have actually thrived in Israel.

In Albert's first book, a collection of short stories, "How This Night Is Different" (2006), the stories revolved around Jewish family gatherings and religious holidays, but the characters, though in search of spiritual fulfillment, were generally secular. The same is true for "The Book of Dahlia." Dahlia's family isn't exactly religious. She is initially sent to a non-denominational Jewish school, and later she celebrates her bat mitzvah. While in college she tries Hillel. But all of this is just scaffolding. Young Dahlia, however, does have faith - blind, unquestioning, absolute faith in her older brother, Dan, who, incidentally, wants nothing to do with her. (Of course, he is the one who'll end up in rabbinical school, assuming even more God-like stature.) Albert's verdict on Dahlia's family members is established early on. It is supposed to be Dahlia's verdict, but the author at times overshadows her creation with some of her more merciless assessments. Infinitely generous if ineffectual Bruce is "a doormat." Margalit's selfishness - she "takes whatever she needs from everybody" - reaches epic proportions as the story goes on. But Dan - or Danny, as Dahlia persists in calling him - is in a class of his own. He is a villain from the moment he is born: "It wasn't colic, it wasn't teething ... it was simply that their son was a fucking asshole." Danny lives up to this label with vengeance. He taunts Dahlia. He ignores her. He drops her on the floor at her bat mitzvah. Every one of her tender overtures toward him is met with scorn. It's not an adolescent stage either, or if it is - he never outgrows it. In the face of Dahlia's illness, each family member gets a chance to grow up a little and show some complexity. Bruce demonstrates his dignity and strength. Margalit, while not redeemed exactly, emerges finally as a jumble of shortcomings and vague good intentions. Danny, however, remains unchanged. There are no glimpses of humanity in him, no signs of breakage. And this, ultimately, is the one fault of Albert's otherwise fine, nuanced novel - this unrelenting simplicity of Danny's character. On the other hand, the fact that soulless Danny turns up a rabbi - a spiritual leader! - is a nice bit of irony and another parallel to "How This Night Is Different." In Albert's books, organized religion might offer an illusion of well-being and abundance, but little solace to those in need.

But what of poor Dahlia? We follow her to her treatments and doctor's appointments, hoping against hope that a cure can be found for her. Increasingly, though, it is her past that carries the book forward. The older she gets the more ominous are her missteps. The damage is more lasting. Her attempts to win Danny over are excruciating. Her life is a train wreck. We get the sense she is hurtling toward some sort of a disaster, and the tumor itself now seems like an inevitability, a symbol of all the emotional wrongs Dahlia's been subjected to. She finishes college in Boston, moves to New York, makes a few questionable friends. Afraid more than anything to be "the JAPy little lemming," she continues to sneer at everything conventional: careers, relationships, health insurance, baby blogs, mass e-mails announcing the successes of her former classmates. But of course, she is exactly what she fears. Apart from occasional bartending, she never gets a job. With her rent paid and her checking account padded by her dad, she can afford to be a nihilist, a slacker. Nor is she all that different from her success-obsessed contemporaries. Like them, she's been seduced by a false sense of entitlement, convinced she is special and that her eventual success is all but guaranteed: "She had assumed there was lots and lots of time during which her life would right itself, that she'd wind up one of those eccentric and self-possessed older women with a doting, bemused partner, a late-in-life child or two, and a well-carved niche in the world." And that's the heartbreak: All the things she's been sneering at? Turns out, deep inside, she really wants them.

Except now it might be too late for Dahlia. One of the surprises of the book is how easy it is to forget this fact. It is, after all, a funny book - fast, exuberant, full of sharp observations - a snapshot of our time. A book about dying, to be sure; but even more, a book about living.

Ellen Litman is the author of "The Last Chicken in America" (Norton), a novel in stories.