In her memoir Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, author Nina Sankovitch recounts the year she spent reading a book a day in hopes of soothing her grief. Sankovitch’s oldest sister, Anne-Marie, whom she greatly admired and loved, passed away from cancer at the age of 46.
Distraught and shaken after Anne-Marie’s passing, Sankovitch plunges herself into life, promising to live for both herself and her beloved sister. She writes:
I was scared of living a life not worth living. Why did I deserve to live when my sister had died? I was responsible now for two lives, my sister’s and my own, and damn, I’d better live well. I had to live hard and live fully. I was going to live double if my sister couldn’t live at all. I was going to live double because I had to die, too, one day, and I didn’t want to miss anything. I set myself to a faster and faster speed. I drove myself through action and plans and trips and activities. I wanted to make my parents smile again and keep my kids from thinking about death. I wanted to love Jack and walk for miles with Natasha. I had to make up for everything that everyone around me lost when Anne-Marie died.
But after three years of full-speed-ahead living, Sankovitch realizes “I couldn’t get away from the sorrow.” So she turns to books for comfort—something she’s done her entire life as an ardent reader. And even more so, she turns to books for answers to the gnawing questions: “…of why I deserved to live. And of how I should live.”
She starts the first book on her 46th birthday and decides to read the books that “I would have shared with Anne-Marie if I could have, ones that we would have talked about, argued over and some we would have agreed upon.” (Interestingly, in several of the books Sankovitch selects, she sees Anne-Marie in the strong, resilient characters.) She also starts a website called ReadAllDay.org to publish her daily reviews. (Yes, in addition to reading a book a day, she also reviews it!)
Sankovitch hopes that her year of reading will become an “escape back into life.” She searches these books for meaning and lessons on loss, life and healing. She also makes connections between the books and her own life, including memories of Anne-Marie and her childhood, past loves and even the tragedies her parents experienced in war-torn Europe. (These are especially stirring.) These memories are essentially sprinkled throughout the book, and appear more like anecdotes than a structured memoir.
Sankovitch writes eloquently about the life lessons she gleans from her many books. For instance:
The Emigrants is not a happy book, but it is a book absolutely resounding with life. If I put my finger on any page of the book, I felt the pulsing heartbeat of the lives Sebald recorded. It is the heartbeat he gave back to them, making them real for me. “Remembrance” for me means remembering someone with love or with respect. Remembrance is acknowledging that a life was lived. Sebald’s book is remembrance of four lives.
I was in my forties, reading in my purple chair. My father was in his eighties, and my sister was in the ocean, her ashes scattered there by all of us in swimsuits under a blue sky. And only now am I grasping the importance of looking backward. Of remembrance. My father finally wrote out his memories for a reason. I took on a year of reading books for a reason. Because words are witness to life: they record what has happened, and they make it all real. Words create the stories that become history and become unforgettable. Even fiction portrays truth: good fiction is truth. Stories about lives remembered bring us backward while allowing us to move forward.
She also writes beautifully about the joy of books. One of my favorite passages:
Books are experience, the words of authors proving the solace of love, the fulfillment of family, the torment of war, and the wisdom of memory. Joy and tears, pleasure and pain: everything came to me while I read in my purple chair. I had never sat so still, and yet experienced so much.
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is filled with poignant parts — like the ones above — but some sections do feel slow, tedious and as though they skim the surface of Sankovitch’s life without delving deeper. As mentioned above, because the memoir is a collection of memories, it feels as though the reader is getting slices from her life instead of a full course meal. Some sections also read cliché and even saccharine. Plus, the book is repetitive: Sankovitch brings up the same insights throughout, so the book probably could’ve been shorter.
How you feel about the book may depend on your expectations: Don’t expect to read a complex or deep memoir or a book solely celebrating books. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is basically a blend. With the focus on healing from her sister’s passing, Sankovitch mixes memories with lessons and wise words from her many books.
But while the book has its limits, it offers timeless wisdom, is uplifting and has a powerful message: “The only balm to sorrow is memory; the only salve for the pain of losing someone to death is acknowledging the life that existed before.” It will no doubt become a salve for sorrow to the many readers who’ve lost loved ones.