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Review: 'The Heart And Other Monsters: A Memoir' By Rose Andersen

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The Heart and Other Monsters is a grief memoir, one that also intersects with a murder mystery. The first thing we learn when we read the first page of the book is that Rose Andersen’s sister has been murdered, but Andersen has no proof.  She admits this up front before guiding us through a plausible series of events that implicate a number of people in bringing Sarah’s short life to a sad end.

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Sarah was only 24 years old when she died of an overdose in the bathroom of her boyfriend’s apartment.  We come to learn through intermittently offered statistics about the opioid epidemic in the United States about this particular town — one Andersen enigmatically refers to as “Small Town” — as having one of the highest rates of opioid use in the state.

But Sarah had already been on a path her whole life to this tragic event. As children, Sarah and Rose were collateral damage in their estranged parents’ battles, their profound dysfunctions and abuses. The sisters maintain positive, if slightly damaged, relationships with their mother and stepmother.  The fathers are another story. As they grow up, Sarah and Rose make poor decisions about men, giving themselves away carelessly as they search for love and acceptance.

Rose is diagnosed with cancer and endures long years of treatment that her sister, who is five years younger, cannot fully understand. Where they’d always had each other to lean on in their childhood, suddenly they do not have the same things in common.

Rose survives the cancer and begins to emerge as a star academically and artistically, but falters. She succumbs to alcoholism and cocaine for a time and it temporarily wrecks her potential and her trajectory toward her goals to finish college.

By this time, Sarah is in deep as a drug addict. Even in this, the sisters do not understand the same concepts. As Sarah reminds her sister, only one of them has ever endured withdrawal and rehab while the other clutched her 30-day sobriety coin.  Sarah believes her own brand of misery is worse than Rose’s.  Rose comes to understand that this is true only insofar as Sarah is unreachable as she falls further into the grips of the disease every time she can manage a short period of being clean.

Stephen Crane famously wrote in the short story, “The Blue Hotel,” that every sin is the result of a collaboration.

The idea seems something of a guiding principle for author Rose Andersen. We trace Sarah’s lonely, difficult childhood with a raging stepfather and a father who remained a puzzle to them, one who lied pathologically and lived reclusively.

The unchecked opioid epidemic in this country seems implicated, too. Sarah always seems to be casting her line toward connection, but in “Small Town,” that line always lands with dubious  men who had nothing to offer her except more of the things that caused harm to her body and her mind. From this shadowy cast of characters exist those Rose believes to be guilty of Sarah’s death. For Rose, she is not just another statistic in the roll call of the opioid epidemic, not just another faceless, nameless number. She is the victim of a heinous crime — a victim whose story and potential are blighted too soon.

Andersen writes with so much authority about the science of addiction, the sociological knowledge of how it brings misery and havoc on a small town full of dead-ends — and how no one seems to care or remember as that death count keeps climbing.

Even so, Rose Andersen makes us care. Sarah could be anyone’s sister, any loved one any one of us has wanted to help and whose burden we could never fully shoulder ourselves. She is the person flailing for our life raft as we float by knowing that if we let her hang on, she will take us down with her or let go again. 

Andersen helps us see that the memoir about grief is a profound internal exploration for the writer. But it helps us trace, not just the mystery of a person’s murder, or the secrets of their lives, but our own transformations, the ways we have to change as we grieve if we are to survive.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.

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