From the author of the critically acclaimed story collection How This Night Is Different comes a dark, arresting, fearlessly funny story of one young woman's terminal illness. In The Book of Dahlia, Elisa Albert walks a dazzling line between gravitas and irreverence, mining an exhilarating blend of skepticism and curiosity, compassion and candor, high and low culture.
Meet Dahlia Finger: twenty-nine, depressed, whip-smart, occasionally affable, bracingly honest, resolutely single, and perennially unemployed. She spends her days stoned in front of the TV, watching the same movies repeatedly, like "a form of prayer." But Dahlia's so-called life is upended by an aggressive, inoperable brain tumor.
Stunned and uncomprehending, Dahlia must work toward reluctant emotional reckoning with the aid of a questionable self-help guide. She obsessively revisits the myriad heartbreaks, disappointments, rages, and regrets that comprise the story of her life -- from her parents' haphazard Israeli courtship to her kibbutz conception; from the role of beloved daughter and little sister to that of abandoned, suicidal adolescent; from an affluent childhood in Los Angeles to an aimless existence in the gentrified wilds of Brooklyn; from a girl with "options" to a girl with none -- convinced that cancer struck because she herself is somehow at fault.
With her take-no-prisoners perspective, her depressive humor, and her extreme vulnerability, Dahlia Finger is an unforgettable anti-heroine. This staggering portrait of one young woman's life and death confirms Elisa Albert as a "witty, incisive" (Variety) and even "wonder-inducing" writer (Time Out New York).
The Book of Dahlia 1. Something Wrong Were there signs, willfully ignored? Did you know, on some level, that something was wrong? Did you avoid knowing? What were the signs? What did you know?
She had been having symptoms. Only recognizable as such in hindsight, but symptoms, nevertheless. A headache. Some sluggishness. Disinclination to do much of anything but hang around her house, take hot showers, slather herself with lavender moisturizer, watch movies on cable, smoke a bowl every few hours, make toaster pastries and consume them methodically, in quarters. Check her email, then check it again. But none of these things much distinguished themselves from Dahlia’s normal state, so there had been zero cause for concern.
Well, concern, sure, but not concern. Just that her life was passing her by. That she might be, in point of fact, wasting her time, herself, utterly. That this might not be a phase. That, okay: What the fuck was she doing?
She’d figured she was due for a period. She always got those awful headaches, and/or the distended belly, bloat, and/or the general exhaustion. An impending period could explain away pretty much anything.
There was also the urinary tract infection for which she’d only just the week before completed a course of antibiotics. So there were all these things wrong with her. Not to mention everything, you know, wrong with her.
On the last day of her ignorance Dahlia Finger woke up shortly before noon, and ate a bowl of Cheerios in front of the television. A League of Their Own was on, for the eighteen-zillionth time, and yet again she found the thing totally irresistible, wound up watching all the way from Jon Lovitz’s entree up through Tom Hanks’s delivery of a tragic military telegram—pause for bong hit—and then straight on to the end, the disappearance of the young lovelies and appearance, in their stead, of riotous old ladies. By then it was almost two in the afternoon and Dahlia was weeping openly about the passage of time and the fact that Geena Davis and Hanks—so clearly meant for each other—never got it on, and the sun was threatening to go away for yet another day and so she made herself a cup of tea and looked in the magnifying mirror for a while. Then she called Mara, who was busy at work in Boston and, as usual, could not, or would not, talk.
“Do you think the Tom character just died alone and drunk?”
“I don’t know, dude. I’m working.” Little bit of judgment there, sure. Mara had, as they say, a life. “I’ll call you later.”
Dahlia’s mother, upon meeting Mara fifteen years earlier, had refused to understand why this girl’s name was “mar-ah,” which translated, in Hebrew, to bitter. “Mar-ah!” Margalit would squawk. “What kind of name is this for a girl?” Dahlia and Mara had come to appreciate this as funny and fitting. Dahlia always pronounced her friend’s name with just that Hebraic lilt to it, because she liked to think Mara was just like her: a match, a true, bitter friend to the true, bitter end.
Dahlia had taken the GRE a few weeks earlier and was still resting on that semi-laurel: having (sort of) studied for and completed a standardized test so singularly uninteresting she might even have chalked up the headache to her brain trying to rid itself of useless information. The fucking GRE. Barely touched study guides still lay piled in a corner, under some health insurance forms and credit card offers she occasionally considered considering.
Why the GRE? Possibly social work school. She could consort with drug addicts, or battered women. The broken, the fucked, the totally broken, the irretrievably fucked. This seemed doable. Maybe she had a calling. Maybe she would be happy, self-sufficient, fulfilled, of use to humankind. Make her dad proud. She had just about given up on making Margalit proud, or even holding her attention for too long, come right down to it.
Anyway, the time had come to do something with herself. “What is your battle plan?” Margalit would often demand. As though life were a long fight one had to orchestrate carefully.
Dahlia had also toyed, intermittently, with the idea of rabbinical school. A pulpit would allow her to cast Talmudic judgment on people who pissed her off, and work on herself a bit, too, have an answer for everything. She’d be a cool rabbi, a real human being, a pot-headed, pop-culture-expounding Universalist. Except, goddamn it all to hell: Danny was a rabbi. Her douchebag brother, the rabbi! So the whole notion, over before it could begin, defeated her. Everyone already knew Danny, anyhow. They knew him as “Dan” or “Dan the man” or “Rabbi D,” from his lifetime of camp counselor-ing and high school mentoring and University Hillel visiting and youth group shepherding: It was an insular, imbecilic universe, and Rabbi Dan, Dahlia’s only sibling, was king of it. King Douchebag, Rabbi Dan.
Fine. So what sort of occupation wouldn’t make her want to fucking kill herself every single godforsaken day? Law school sounded like a freaking curse; the words together (LAW-SCHOOL) like some sort of prison sentence handed down in a language she didn’t speak, for a crime she didn’t commit, by a totalitarian, undemocratic judge in a third world country. Too many rules, too much precision. Laws, for Christ’s sake. Thank you, no.
She had no creative talent to speak of, though she had made a mean mix-tape in her day and certainly counted herself a reasonable connoisseur of culture (witness the umpteenth, slightly ironic League of Their Own screening, the bimonthly live music attendance, the requisite, half-read McSweeney’s stacked on the floor by the untouched GRE study guides and untouched health insurance forms, indie theater movie stubs littering the bottom of her bag). She had attempted a spec script or two when she’d moved back to L.A. (because how could she not? She of the ecstatic, repeated viewings of every cheesy movie on cable during any given month’s cycle), but they were derivative, unimpressive. One was Sex and the City. The other: Scrubs. Which she had never watched. But Dahlia’s mean streak amounted to narratively unaccountable jabs everywhere: at materialism, stupidity, douchebag rabbis, dating websites. “Some fun moments, but way too hostile for episodic television!” said the only TV lit agent she could get to read the thing, the son of an old friend of her father’s. “Why would Carrie stop wearing Manolos and decry the shallowness of her own fashion obsession? Sex and the City isn’t in production anymore, anyway. Also: Scrubs is a hospital comedy, so it’d be advisable to set the show at or around the hospital. Best of luck.”
It was a pain in the ass, this figuring out what to do with your life. A matter, as the famous book intoned, of finding the shade of parachute that best complemented you. But really: With no parachute at all you’d hit the pavement so hard it probably wouldn’t even hurt, and you’d unleash a whole new color palate—bone, blood, muscle—in the process.
So screw the parachute, screw the battle plan. So weed and A League of Their Own. So napping in the breeze. So toaster pastries. So maybe social work school. Or journalism school (though there was the problem of facts with that one, namely a responsibility to them). So the GRE. Whatever. Things would “figure themselves out,” as she told her mother. (“Mah zeh, figure themselves out? Nothing figures itself out! What is your battle plan?”)
She was living her life isometrically: action with no movement.
This was officially a new start, at any rate. She had what her father called “options”; she had nothing but the time and freedom to explore them. She was twenty-nine years old and dear old Daddy Bruce had wiped the slate clean for her. Life in New York, never sustainable in the first place, had become downright unlivable. Bruce, bless his uncomplicated, wealthy heart, had offered her this out: Come home.
And, indeed, Bruce welcomed his little girl back “home” with a lovely cottage in Venice. He acted like this was Dahlia’s right, as expected as hearing her Mirandas or voting. As inevitable as the bearing of arms. Of course she would have a house handed to her, a microscopic mortgage in place for her to pay (but only so she would “learn about money” and be “responsible” for it herself: he had a good deal of cash, but Bruce had “values” as well).
Dahlia adored the house, loved that it was hers (given, sure, but still). It was a haven, her very own airy bungalow box of clean ocean air. The Spanish tile, the stainless steel, the open kitchen, the recessed lighting, the beamed and soaring ceiling. To get to the front door you had to enter through a wooden gate and walk down a short stone path beset by night-blooming jasmine. She was going to go to Morocco and bring back colored lanterns to hang along this path. She was going to find a wind chime. She was going to get a hammock. She was going to paint the door blue. She felt safe, beyond the reach of all the shit that had dogged her in New York, in college, in high school, in childhood, in utero, and possibly even before that. She was anonymous in Venice; she knew almost nobody and almost nobody knew her. At night, in bed, if she strained, she thought she could hear the Pacific. She felt as though she was re-gestating; that for those first months she was rerooting herself via the cable matinees and pot, via late afternoons strolling Abbott-Kinney, stopping on Main Street for a coffee and a book or a People magazine. Watching movies (Titanic, Flirting with Disaster, Mannequin, Thelma and Louise, Rushmore, The Goonies, She’s Having a Baby, it mattered very little) was a kind of prayer: She knew the characters as well as she knew herself, as well as she knew anything there was to know, and she could chart and rechart their movements and secrets and misunderstandings endlessly, reflecting in any number of new permutations on all of it, each time. Again and again. They were acquaintances—people she’d known her whole life and understood well, people incapable of letting her down by changing or disappearing or offering up the unexpected. The League of Their Own tears were purely for catharsis. When she was done she would reemerge, reborn. She would make new mistakes. Or maybe none at all.
Okay, wait. Honestly? It wasn’t A League of Their Own. It was actually Terms of Endearment, but that just seems too easy, a bit ridiculous. Reality’s fucked like that. That on the last day of her innocence Dahlia Finger could be found sobbing on her couch, baked out of her head at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, watching Terms of freaking Endearment!?
What did you know before you knew?
No, let’s just say it was A League of Their Own. (But it wasn’t.)
On some level you may not feel surprised. On some level you may have known Something was Wrong.
Anyway, the symptoms. Clear in hindsight, so obvious once their root cause is known. A headache, sluggishness, disinclination. She was tired, but she had done nothing whatsoever to tire herself. It was somehow perfectly acceptable as the result of—one could assume—having no direction, no desire to do anything but sit right where she was, crying, feeling something at least (even if it was about Debra goddamned Winger) in her perfect bungalow, the salty breeze fluffing her white curtains—curtains she had hung by herself!—just so. Bruce had been excessively proud of the curtains, and of Dahlia for having hung them all by herself. Bruce was excessively proud, always, of everything. The headache, et al., spoke only to the uselessness of Dahlia’s existence—a life so relatively blessed and easy and bountiful that some festering guilt had to be thrown into the mix as well. Which quite plausibly added up to a consistent low-grade headache and the tendency to stretch out on the couch, stoned, napping in the breeze.
“Spoiled,” she could hear Margalit spitting at her, running commentary. “Everything is too easy for you. You should have some real problems. You should know what real problems are.”
Ben, the guy she’d been sleeping with, had wanted to get together that night for dinner, a movie, a drink, but Dahlia was happy on her couch, happy with her movies, happy with her weed. Ben exhausted her (like jobs exhausted her, like the GRE exhausted her, like her period exhausted her, like depositing Daddy’s checks exhausted her, like going to the post office for stamps to pay bills with money she’d been given, no strings attached, exhausted her).
Dahlia and Ben had met at a bar party about a month earlier, a birthday of friends of friends of friends, on one of the unique evenings on which Dahlia had forsaken the couch, the weed, the movies, for a night out. A girl needed a night out every so often, and the infrequency of those nights out ensured Dahlia’s total enjoyment of them. She was the life of the party on those unique evenings. Why didn’t she go out more often, she asked herself. Ben was getting his PhD in art history, bless his unemployable heart. He confessed to Dahlia that he didn’t get out much, himself. He was the kind of guy she could easily imagine having had a crush on as an undergraduate, a goofy grad student with broad shoulders and thick, floppy hair, a messenger bag. If nothing else, imagining him as the object of someone else’s undergraduate lust was attractive enough, and sealed the deal. She herself had never had the privilege of defilement by an academic superior. They kissed in the parking lot, his nervous smile endearing as hell, and his soft hands around her face like he actually meant the kiss. It was Santa Monica cold, the air wet and crisp. After New York Dahlia had promised herself, as an experiment: no more fucking on first meeting. Could she do it? Ben was sweet-smelling and cute and those soft hands held her face neither too loosely nor too insistently: Could she make it to a second meeting? No, she could not.
“Follow me,” she told him before getting into her car. The shy, delighted look on his face briefly made her want to change her mind, but it was too late. Fuck it. Life, as they say, was short.
But over a month later, enough! She hadn’t wanted a flipping boyfriend, for god’s sake. She didn’t want to hurt the sweet would-be-professor, but really. “Dayenu,” as Margalit would say when she was done with one of her men: it would have been enough.
This Ben character was so eager to spend time with her, to be her boyfriend, to see her on nights like this for dinner, a drink. Who had the energy? The fun part was meeting them, playing the does-he-really-like-me game, finding out what they were like in bed, getting comfortable enough to relax; after that they could go away. Usually this scenario ran itself out on about a three-week course. Don’t get too attached to me, she wished she could somehow broadcast to the poor guy, I have no interest in being your girlfriend. And you might not realize it, but you have no interest in being my boyfriend. Have a nice life, etc.
By way of excuse, and in what turned out to be a fortuitous twist, Dahlia had told Ben she wasn’t feeling well, that she would be at home that night, hanging out, lying low, “taking it easy.”
“Okay,” he’d said, sounding defeated. Surely he knew the jig was up; surely he knew she was blowing him off. She hadn’t made any real effort to spend time with him in over a week, now. “Feel better. I’ll call to check up on you later.”
Don’t, she almost said.
And as the afternoon gave way to evening Dahlia was a little confused: She really wasn’t feeling so hot. Was this her punishment? Had her excuse made itself manifest? Because she really wasn’t feeling so hot. Oh, well. She made herself a snack bounty (Brie, a sliced Fuji apple, garlic crackers, Oreos), arranged it buffet-style on her coffee table, and settled back into the couch for another bong hit. (Would it be over-the-top to mention that Dying Young was on cable? Probably. So let’s split the difference and say it was Steel Magnolias, shall we? A Julia Roberts/untimely-death compromise; how’s that?)
It is only natural to revisit the moment things went wrong, the moment our lives went from okay to not okay, from normal to problematic.
The last thing Dahlia remembered was taking a break from the movies to watch an I Love the 90’s marathon on VH1.
She’d put a frozen pizza in the oven, made herself another cup of tea, flopped down on the couch, and begun the long process of psyching herself up for bedtime: the always depressing end to another failed day. But there she still was, after midnight, letting first 1993 and then 1994 and 1995 pass her by.
Discussion Questions 1. What was your initial impression of Dahlia? Did your opinion change as the story progressed and significant details about her life experience were revealed? Why or why not? 2. What do you think about the idea that a positive attitude is the most important ingredient for a happy, healthy life? Why does Dahlia resist this theory, and what does it tell us about her? Do you think Dahlia's attitude "dooms" her? Many of us have had experiences with cancer, either personally or in our families. In our experiences, how has this dictate to be "positive" affected us and our loved ones? Is there a part of us that wants to kick and scream and complain and feel sorry for ourselves, even though we know it's not productive? Discuss your own experiences with illness. Does illness transform us? Why or why not? 3. "Sure, the situation was bad, but Dahlia felt free, freer than ever, to do what she did best: muck around in the heinous reality of it. She was unimpeachable. She could say and think and feel whatever she wanted. She had cancer! (p. 40)" On some level is Dahlia a little bit glad to have this terminal illness? Does she believe it lends weight and shape and meaning and confirmation to her enormous unhappiness? 4. Dahlia spends a lot of her time watching television, often viewing the same movies on cable over and over again. Why is watching familiar movies "a kind of prayer (p. 6)" for Dahlia? 5. Discuss Dahlia's relationship with her brother, Danny. What compels her to pursue a relationship with him for so many years despite his thoughtless cruelty to her? What does her persistent devotion to and adoration for Danny tell us about her? Why, then, do you think Dahlia refuses to forgive Danny even on her deathbed? 6. "A vile, self-absorbed, depressing, lazy, messy, spoiled, f---ed-up, probably mentally ill loser dies. So what?" muses The Book of Dahlia (p. 252). How would you answer one of the novel's central questions: Is a seemingly "wasted" life worth mourning? 7. If you found her difficult to like in general, are there nevertheless things about Dahlia that you do find sympathetic? Can you think of some emotional or psychological ways in which Dahlia does indeed triumph? When we encounter a character with whom we don't totally identify, what can we learn about ourselves from our reactions? 8. What do you think is useful about art (literature, music, film, painting, photography) that is "depressing" or full of angst and pain? What do you gain from looking at or reading or watching or listening to a work of art that is sad or unpleasant as opposed to cheerful and uplifting? Do you think we can learn from "depressing" art, or should we want to see only happy things? 9. What do you think the narrator means in calling Dahlia's story a "litmus test (p. 252)"? Do you think you passed or failed this test and why? 10. If Dahlia made you feel judgmental or unsympathetic, discuss how and why you dislike her. In what ways does a character like Dahlia make us confront our own fears and regrets? What role has resentment played in your own life, and how have you conquered it or struggled to conquer it? Discuss a time in your life when you were bogged down in negative emotions, and talk about how you got through it. 11. Given the choice to wallow in self-pity and anger and resentment or take charge of our lives and let go of the past, how and why are we sometimes able to choose the latter? What makes a person strong enough to "Choose Life" versus someone who is unable to do so? 12. How do you think our society as a whole deals with death? Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the cultural and religious ideas about death that you've encountered? What are your own attitudes about and notions of death? How have these changed throughout your life? Is it something you think about often? Why or why not? Enhance Your Book Club 1. Elisa Albert has said that Leo Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Susan Sontag's essay Illness as Metaphor served as inspirations for The Book of Dahlia. Read those works and discuss thematic overlaps. 2. Read Albert's short story collection, How This Night Is Different, and discuss its similarities to and differences from The Book of Dahlia. 3. Learn more about the author by visiting her website www.elisaalbert.com, where you can find interviews, profiles, and reviews of The Book of Dahlia and How This Night Is Different. 4. Listen to Albert's interview with Scott Simon on NPR's Weekend Edition at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90157329. 5. Listen to Albert's podcast interview with Nextbook editor Ellen Umansky at http://www.nextbook.org/cultural/feature.html?id=795.
Elisa Albert is the author of the short story collection How This Night is Different and the novel The Book of Dahlia. She has taught creative writing at Columbia University and is currently Writer-in-Residence at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in Holland.
"[H]ilarious and heartbreaking.... Albert's superb first novel...begins with the omniscient narrator's scathingly Edith Wharton-worthy catalogue of Dahlia's symptoms and ends with her first grand mal seizure.... Throughout, Albert delivers Dahlia's laissez-faire attitude toward other people and lack of ambition with such exactness as to strip them of cliche and make them grimly vivid. Her brilliant style makes the novel's central question -- should we mourn a wasted life? -- shockingly poignant." -- Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Elisa Albert has the unique gift of making bedmates out of humor and heartbreak. The Book of Dahlia is wonderful." -- Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan
"The Book of Dahlia does not go gently into that good night -- each line howls with pain and rage and laughter. It takes an unflinching look at terminal illness in our culture of sunny denial and doesn't let readers off the hook, either -- this book will bring you to your knees. It's also the funniest thing I've read in years." -- Karen Russell, author of St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
"Never maudlin, occasionally harrowing, and often hilarious, The Book of Dahlia is a dark, surprising wonder. Faced with her own imminent and unavoidable demise, Dahlia doesn't flinch -- but you will." -- Kelly Braffet, author of Last Seen Leaving