BookBrowse Reviews This Angel on My Chest by Leslie Pietrzyk

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This Angel on My Chest

by Leslie Pietrzyk

This Angel on My Chest by Leslie Pietrzyk X
This Angel on My Chest by Leslie Pietrzyk
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Oct 2015, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2017, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Exploring the many facets of grief through fiction in a variety of formats and voices, This Angel on My Chest deserves a wide audience.

Leslie Pietrzyk draws on her own experiences in This Angel on My Chest, a collection of loosely connected short stories, each of which features a young widow. Pietrzyk, whose husband died of a heart attack at the age of 37, deftly explores the various aspects of grief she endured following the tragedy, some aspects of which continue to affect her more than a decade later.

The book is fictional, but the author has said that she made a point of including at least "one hard, true thing" in each story, tiny details that would never occur to someone who hasn't gone through a deep loss. For example, in one of the stories she talks about her husband's love for malted milk balls – and regret after his death that she more frequently bought peanut M&Ms because they were her favorite. So while the tales feature different women in different circumstances, each has an underlying ring of truth that blurs the line between fact and fiction. In some of the stories Pietrzyk does seem to talk directly to her husband but whether it's the fictional spouse lost by the character or the real-life equivalent the author lost, it's impossible to tell.

Unsurprisingly This Angel on My Chest is very touching but the feelings expressed aren't limited to sorrow. They instead cycle through a whole gamut of emotions such as anger, fear, confusion and depression. The book is outward looking too, exploring characters' reactions to their husbands' deaths and the responses of those around the women, rather than depicting any of them as objects of pity.

It made me more appreciative of the people in my life, and also caused me to pause and wonder what I'd miss about them should they predecease me, things that I take for granted now. While I choked up a bit from time to time, I generally didn't find the book overly sad or depressing. I was instead primarily impressed by the author's ability to completely capture her subject so perfectly. I've been lucky and haven't known this level of loss in my life, but Pietrzyk's writing went a long way toward helping me understand what she and others have experienced.

The author confines most of her stories to grief and the mourning process, only making her way to healing toward the end of the collection as she seems to apologize to her late husband for moving on. Given the fact that some healing seems to have occurred in her life — she has remarried — I found it interesting that she chose to limit her stories to the death of a spouse and its immediate aftereffects. But even with this limited scope, the book doesn't become dull or keep hammering on a single subject. The variety of voices, formats and emotions is rather remarkable and keeps the collection entertaining as perspectives shift from one account to the next. She moves beyond the standard short story form by including elements such as a multiple-choice quiz and a list of foods mentioned throughout the book. Neither of these formats sounds particularly remarkable; what, you may ask yourself, is so exciting about a list? Yet somehow the author turns chapters such as these into some of the most moving and memorable parts of the book.

Sometimes Pietrzyk's use of perspective is confusing. In some of the stories she uses "you," and I found myself re-reading to determine if "you" was the narrator referring to herself (as in, "you have to ask yourself if…") or if "you" was the narrator talking to her absent spouse ("you once said…"). The same uncertainty occurred over the use of "she" referring to an unnamed character in a chapter that focused on more than one woman. Careful reading of these sections, though, will certainly help avoid the disorientation I occasionally felt, and the overall quality of Pietrzyk's writing makes any struggle through these passages well worth the effort.

This Angel on My Chest is excellent from start to finish, and deserves a wide audience. Readers who can get beyond their knee-jerk aversion to the subject will find a real gem here.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in November 2015, and has been updated for the January 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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