Notwithstanding the fact that she has been the wife of a senator, presidential candidate, and vice-presidential nominee, the most important men in this story are her late father and her firstborn son. That the firstborn son is also “late,” having been killed by a freak traffic mishap in 1996, at the age of 16, is surely the eventual dominant motif of the book. Political defeat, cancer, infidelity, other family losses: you can somehow tell that if she could avail herself of the remedy in the Millay poem “Interim,” which she quotes so beautifully, but would have to choose to have just one thing put right again, it would be Wade. I remember once discussing with Elizabeth the brute evolutionary fact that people used to have large numbers of offspring because they had to count on burying at least some of them; however objectively one reasons such a thing, it will still, always, appear to be against nature for a parent to be at the funeral of a child, rather than the other way about.
The contrasting and connected story—of her long attendance at her father’s sickbed and his eventual dying—is one of stoicism rather than grief. Captain Vincent Anania, a veteran Navy flier and evidently a man of considerable physical and moral courage, was much reduced in both body and mind in the last two decades of his life but managed to sustain a resistance to death and despair that is pretty obviously the inspiration for his daughter’s main title. (“There is nothing about resilience that I can say that my father did not first utter silently in eighteen years of living inside a two-dimensional cutout of himself.”) I note, and not just in passing, that Elizabeth unflinchingly records her mother’s conviction that the gallant captain had been unfaithful to her while she was “buried in babies” (an odd and interesting formulation). She also remarks tenderly that when, with two years left to go, her father “unabashedly flirted with the aide at the assisted-living center, he was saying to the world what he said to me in 1990: I understand that it will not be all I crave, but I want to live.” For now, one might just observe that John Edwards, as well as knowing that his wife was the clever one, must also have understood that she had a very high standard for masculine role models.
She has herself, meanwhile, become a best-selling model for many readers, and not, I am sure, only for female ones. She is a person with many friends and many internal and moral and intellectual resources, yet she confesses in the most disarming—and helpful—manner how much the Internet came to her aid, first when her son was killed and second when she discovered that a term had been set on her own life. The importance of this medium in bringing about a great unspoken social reform—the abolition of loneliness—has not to my knowledge been better evoked.
As to the other great supposed cure for isolation, the consolation of religion, Elizabeth is at the same time vulnerable and skeptical. In describing the dreams and superstitions and fantasies that assailed her when she lost her boy, she confirms something that I have long thought to be true about the apparent conundrum of female religiosity: Why is it women who keep up the congregations in male-dominated places of worship? That’s easy: women do all the childbearing, and they will try anything—anything—to ward off the illness or death of an infant. They will also grieve over and commemorate such a catastrophe long after the menfolk have “moved on.” Elizabeth manages to get a slight laugh out of a sad parishioner at her North Carolina church who says that his unending misery is like the movie Groundhog Day (“I think he must have left before the end of the film”), and she ends up with a sort of deistic compromise whereby she doesn’t demand the right to have an explanation from God but doesn’t believe he intervenes, either. Like a surprising number of people, she fails to see any contradiction in the idea that God “gave” her “free will.” When she goes to texts for illumination, she is more likely to quote Ovid than the Gospels. From the Old Testament she prefers the Book of Job, and no wonder.