A Cheerless Book Worth Reading

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.


  1. 99% of what I read falls into the “cheerful fluff” category you so aptly described, but every once in awhile I read something less than happy. I think I can get through this one. I completely agree with you when you say you can read more than you can watch on screen. I think our own imaginations when reading protect us a bit whereas if someone else puts it on screen we lose that helpful buffer. I’m adding this to my list. Thanks so much for introducing this book to us!

    1. Interestingly, I’m able to read a wider range of emotional material than I am able to watch on screen, and I’m able to write more emotional material than I am able to read. I think you’re correct that it’s about the degree to which our own imaginations are able to protect us. When I’m writing about a difficult topic, I’m in complete control, more so than I am when I’m reading someone else’s work and much more so than I am when watching a movie (without the fast forward button! My husband hates watching movies with me!).

    2. By the way, in addition to my earlier reply, I wanted to say that it helped that this novel wasn’t very long. I wouldn’t have been able to handle 300-500 pages of emotional turmoil. That’s why I’ve never been able to finish a single Jody Picoult book.

    1. Thank you for writing such a worthwhile read! I enjoyed your clear writing style, and I grew to love your characters. I’m curious to know why you decided to write Ethan’s chapters in third person. It’s the only aspect of the novel that felt odd to me, but I did get used to it.

      1. I chose 3rd person for Ethan because I thought it was really Ella and Jenny’s story and I wanted the reader to feel closer to either or both of them. It’s a good question — one that I’ve received from a few people. Again, I am so honored by this review — it has made me happy all day and I’ve shared it with my whole world! 🙂

        1. Thanks for your response! That makes sense, though I sympathized the most with Ethan because he seemed the most innocent. The change from 1st to 3rd person was interesting, even if it took a bit getting used to. It sets your book apart from others.

  2. A friend of mine had the same reservations about seeing a Demi Moore film that begins with the death of her young son, but she stuck it out and enjoyed the movie. She has two kids. This subject makes her stomach clench.

    1. Yeah, depending on the subject, I have a tough time at the movies, too. On many occasions, I’ve spent more time hiding in the bathroom than I’ve spent watching the movie! I’m better with books (or watching a movie at home) because I can pause if I need a break. I’ve been this way my whole life.

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