In Elisa Albert’s first novel, The Book of Dahlia (Free Press, $23), we learn right away that Dahlia Finger is dying of a brain tumor.
Dahlia, 29 years old, is living in a California beach house her father bought for her, in exile from her ruined life in New York. She had, the narrator says, “what her father called ‘options’; she had nothing but the time and freedom to explore them.” So when it turns out that all the time she has left is nine months (“tops”), what’s her life worth after all? The tragedy that was Dahlia’s life — the suicidal depressions, failed relationships, aimlessness — deserved no applause, and got none. But now that she’s dying, well, it’s the first thing about her worth sending to the alumni magazine.
The reader, therefore, becomes embarrassingly eager for redemption, something that will make Dahlia’s life meaningful. Emerging as the figure of potential redemption is Dahlia’s estranged older brother, Danny Finger, a.k.a. Rabbi Douchebag. Dahlia’s best friend during childhood, he becomes cruel and mocking after their mother deserts the family. Much of the book’s tension revolves around Dahlia’s relationship with Danny, both in flashbacks and in the present.
But it seems that Dahlia enjoys her anger towards Danny as much as any forgiveness. For her, dying is just like living — kind of hard, kind of lonely. Her own hope for the future lies in small daily accomplishments, to-do lists. High-school-age Dahlia used to sit in class doodling lists of the good things about her life: “I have a full lunch card. / Mr. Warren was friendly to me today. / I am wearing my Doc Martens.” These things, ritualistically repeated, kept her from suicide. Now, again facing death, she latches onto a self-help book, It’s Up to You: The Cancer To-Do List, as though following a few simple steps will save her. The Book of Dahlia parallels It’s Up to You, also consisting of 18 chapters (l’chaim!) with titles like “Find a Support System” and “Live Now.”
Though Albert does a masterful job of managing the tension in Dahlia’s relationship with her brother, her parents remain one-dimensional characters, unchanging even as their daughter dies. Daddy Bruce is the sweet, generous pushover; Margalit is impulsive and self-centered. They are described again and again in these simplified terms, both seeming more like caricatures than real people.
Nonetheless, we have Margalit to thank for one of the book’s funniest moments. Margalit reads Dahlia a poem by a young man who had bone cancer (“I learn from the sky and the stars. They know not how much time is left, but they shine, shine, shine… ”) and Dahlia replies, “What the fuck is that?… It isn’t a poem just because he’s dead.” Nor does cancer turn Dahlia’s life into a poem. Dahlia is still messy, lazy and fucked-up. If you’re looking for redemption, for a book that will allow you to move on even as it moves you to tears, this is not the place to look. It’s hard to believe in death, but The Book of Dahlia insists on it, pushing the reluctant reader to admit that it’s a very real possibility for the end of this story. Still, Dahlia is proof that a life lived is a life worth living — and in the end there doesn’t need to be anything more to it than that.
Emily Seife works at Random House Children’s Books and has published in The Mississippi Review, Zeek, The Westchester Review, and New Voices Magazine.