Friday, May 7, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Competitive Grieving by Nora Zelevansky

 I received this book from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

Competitive Grieving by Nora Zelevansky is a funny contemporary novel that deals with a very unfunny topic.

Wren is a thirty-something grant writer for an international infrastructure NGO (Operation Sewage) whose dreams of being an investigative journalist petered out when she realized she needed a steady salary with benefits. She’s content with her life, which includes a small circle of good friends, a cat, an obsession with The Bachelor, a disappointing string of boyfriends, and a lifelong best-friendship with a successful TV star: Stewart Beasley. Although they see each other infrequently, and bicker frequently, the friendship (which began from birth) is solid. They are each other’s mainstays.

However, the novel opens with Wren receiving word of Stewart’s sudden unexpected death. 

Wren is in shock. She stumbles through the next few days, including the funeral, unable to cry. She finds herself helplessly trying to comfort people who she believes cannot be as devastated as she is. She copes by imagining funeral details for people she comes across, friends and strangers. (These imaginary funerals are bitingly funny.) However, Wren grows increasingly infuriated by the hangers-on, who claim a closer friendship to him than they have, who think they know Stewart better than she does. (Didn’t she and Stewart used to mock these people?)

Wren has always been intimidated by Stewart’s mother, so is surprised when the mother asks her to clean out Stewart’s apartment and sort through his belongings. To do this, she has to work with Stewart’s lawyer friend, George. (The one bright spot. George is a good guy.) If the task was not painful enough, the apartment is descended upon by those same, awful hangers-on, all claiming they are helping when, in fact, Wren sees them as simply trying to get a hold of Stewart’s stuff. As well as asserting their claims to close friendship with the deceased.

Wren’s defense is snark. She’s hurting and it makes her mean-spirited. Most of the time, though, she keeps her meanness in her head, or speaks it only to George, whose sense of humor matches hers. He doesn’t have the history with Stewart and the others so is able, at first, to cut them more slack. 

It’s all a bit overwhelming for Wren. The more she digs into Stewart’s life, the less she recognizes him. She starts wondering if she didn’t know her best friend well at all. 

The novel balances humor and sorrow, making for a bittersweet read, as Wren’s searching clarifies not only Stewart’s life, but her own.

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