Leslie A. Gordon’s debut novel, Cheer: A Novel, is a book I almost did not read because of its subject matter: the aftermath of the loss of a toddler. Losing a child, particularly at such a young age, is every parent’s worst nightmare. It is certainly mine. I bought the book to challenge myself, having realized that staying away from certain subjects would mean that I could miss out on some worthwhile, well-written books that provide valuable insights into topics I truly hope to never experience myself. Besides, reading would be boring if my home library (now largely digital) consisted of only cheerful fluff. As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote in Timequake, “A plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit,” and I believe that appreciation can come from tragedies as well as lighter material.
I learned of this book after coming across the author’s WordPress blog, which led me to Amazon, where I downloaded the sample, which then sat on my Kindle for a few days as I debated the merits of reading about a topic that scares me. I am lucky to have my three daughters with me, but we did come dangerously close to losing our twins, who each spent 78 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit after their extremely early birth. Even books that deal with loss under different circumstances, such as loss of an otherwise healthy toddler, trigger memories and feelings I prefer not to revisit and remind me of the fragility of life.
Previously, as I discussed in an earlier post, I took a risk with Julia Stuart’s The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise, which also dealt with the impact of a child’s death, and found its treatment of heartbreaking loss interspersed with bizarre quirkiness very unsettling. It was an odd combination that, coupled with the author’s convoluted writing style, felt contrived. In comparison, Gordon’s Cheer feels more genuine with its realistic characters and cleaner prose.
Cheer features the Dahl family, a mother, father, and daughter who have suffered the loss of 20-month-old Riley. Each surviving member feels responsible for Riley’s accidental death. Fourteen-year-old Ella directs her energies into competitive cheerleading, a program which, as an aside for anyone interested in women’s rights, typically does not qualify as a sport under Title IX (with the Second Circuit recently ruling that the program at Quinnipiac University is not a varsity sport). As Ella goes through the motions of moving on with her life, she is unable to forgive herself for what happened to her brother, and she strives to fill the void left by his absence. Jenny, the mother, dreams of having another child, but finds that it is not as easy to get pregnant at age forty-one. Meanwhile, her marriage crumbles, a process set in motion prior to Riley’s death, a process that Ethan, the father, struggles to stop. To honor the memory of his young son, Ethan hopes to save what is left of his family.
Over the novel’s 176 pages (not that Kindle has page numbers), we witness the Dahl family’s healing process, with each chapter focused on a different character. Ella’s and Jenny’s chapters are in first person, while Ethan’s chapters are told in third person, a shift in point of view that I found mildly jarring at first. There are many emotional moments, some that were so sad that I needed a break. However, the plot was compelling enough for me to resume reading until the very end, a hopeful conclusion that the sympathetic characters deserve.
I am so curious to know what the future holds for this family. You will have to read the book to know what I mean.