It’s one thing to write about the marrow of the bones — there’s a lot of research out there to back me up when I’m describing bones and blood and stem cells. It’s another thing to write about the marrow of the self. The marrow of the bones is home to your stem cells. The marrow of yourself is home to your soul.
Elizabeth Lesser, Marrow
When her sister, Maggie, is diagnosed with Stage IV lymphoma, Elizabeth Lesser learns that Maggie’s only chance for survival depends on a bone marrow transplant — and that Elizabeth is a perfect match. Marrow chronicles the sisters’ childhood and adult relationship, as well as the bone marrow transplant process.
Straddling the line between memoir and self-help and filled with both medical information and psychological insights, Marrow will appeal both to readers of Eat Pray Love and When Breath Becomes Air. I found Elizabeth Gilbert’s account of her solo travels boring and self-obsessed (although I loved her 2013 novel, The Signature of All Things), but I know Eat Pray Love struck a chord with many readers.
On the other hand, I absolutely loved — and will never forget — Paul Kalanathi’s gripping and beautiful memoir of his final days. Sad as it is, When Breath Becomes Air inspires the reader to live better, to be the best person he or she can be. Marrow may lack the stark and immediate power of When Breath Becomes Air — for one thing, the dominant voice is Elizabeth’s rather than Maggie’s; for another, the narrative frequently strays into territory that detracts from the central story of Maggie’s illness and the love between the two sisters — but in the end, it offers readers hope and inspiration.
When her second book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, Elizabeth didn’t expect her pragmatic sister “to even crack the book’s cover.” Maggie was “an avid reader, but her taste did not include anything that smacked of self-help. She liked novels or nonfiction books about beekeeping and bread baking.” (Maggie sounds like me, although my nonfiction tastes run to medical and historical topics, along with true crime.) However, Elizabeth notes that “there’s nothing like trauma to change one’s reading habits”, and she learned that Maggie had copied a passage from Broken Open and kept it on an index card in her car. In that passage, Elizabeth recounts that a psychic told her: “It is time for you to answer the call of your soul. It’s calling, but you’re too scared to listen. You think you know what’s important, but you don’t . . . What’s important in this life is to learn the soul lessons.”
I admit that when I start reading about psychics and soul lessons, I get a little skeptical. So it was a relief when I reached the chapter titled “Mother Cells”, in which Elizabeth describes reading a textbook called Essential Cell Biology and, in the simplest and clearest language, explains how a bone marrow transplant works: “The patient must endure a near-death experience in order to live.” The chapter ends with an entry from Maggie’s journal, in which she says, “I will try to proceed with good cheer.”
And, amazingly, she does just that, with the support of Elizabeth, their other sisters, her boyfriend, and their families. She gets fed up, as anyone would, with well-meaning friends who offer unsolicited advice about juice fasts, overseas clinics, and her “face twists into a look of wrathful disbelief when someone suggests that negative thinking, or grilled meat, or early exposure to pesticides might have caused the cancer.” An old friend suggests that if Maggie “refrains from using refined sugar and ingests large quantities of Japanese green tea she can totally heal from her disease.” Elizabeth offers readers some guidance on helping people who are sick:
Do not offer unsolicited advice . . . If you must, go ahead and ask them if they want to hear about promising new treatments or stories of those who beat the odds. Ask in such a way that the very vulnerable, very tired patient, or the equally weary caretaker, can easily say, “No, thank you” to articles, books, and links to treatment plans and meditative YouTube videos.
Many patients and caregivers roll their eyes at “inspirational” books filled with platitudes about positive thinking, but Marrow is not one of those. As I read, I grew to appreciate Elizabeth’s brave and honest approach to spirituality and self-discovery. Self-help books, she says, are not “superficial books that give pat answers to life’s unsolvable mysteries. They are “an ancient genre — the literature of wisdom, the philosophy of living.” (I even read one of the self-help books she recommends, The Four Agreements, which she says is “about the power of simple, honest, and bold communication.”)
Familiar books offer us consolation during difficult times. Elizabeth notes that the self-help books on her shelves give her strength and comfort, while her mother found that Walt Whitman provided solace and her father read Tolstoy repeatedly. I think that Marrow, a story about the strength of love, will be a book that many readers turn to again and again.
For an interesting interview with Elizabeth Lesser, check out this article in Psychology Today.