In our current exhibitionist culture, in which “telling all,” and the squirt of fame it might bring, trumps old-fashioned dignity and that sacred thing that we once called “privacy,” Karen Propp somehow manages to create a shocking page-turner by doing just the opposite: writing about a deeply private thing — her husband’s indelicate fight with prostate cancer and their ultimately vain struggle as a couple towards trying to redeem some fragment of a sex life — with breathtaking integrity and modesty. Propp’s attentions are almo.st monastic in their simplicity, and she is so unspoiled that she puts the rest of LIS cranky coupled women to shame.
In Sickness and in Health is not a “spiritual” book in the treacly, hardship-brings-wisdom genre, but rather something much less narcissistic: a tender, honest account of an ordinary husband and wife whose transparency paradoxically only serves to highlight the fundamental healing silence at the heart of intimacy, the silence that strengthens the untouchable and stands outside the exploitable world of profit and utility. Though Propp hospitably invites the reader into the gritty nuptial world of vacuum erection devices, foil pouches and grownup diapers, she also somehow simultaneously creates an unbroachable preserve for what’s truly only theirs—jolting the reader into remembering that there are, indeed, places we don’t belong.
The emotional curve of the book is beautifully rendered, and what emerges is a calming portrait of a very real marriage and very real losses. The biggest intimacy here, of course, is something this unassuming author doesn’t even mention: that her husband, amazingly, has trusted her to tell this excruciatingly private tale, and that this trust, as the years have banked up, is something utterly deserved.