Making Toast: A Family Story by Roger Rosenblatt

2010. HarperCollins. Hardcover. 166 pages.

 From: the public library

 Recommendation from: Sophisticated Dorkiness

In a nutshell:

In a series of anecdotes, Rosenblatt tells about life after the unexpected death of his adult daughter, Amy. Rosenblatt and his wife Ginny move in with their son-in-law to help care for their three young grandchildren.

Review:

I really loved Making Toast in the beginning. I was already thinking ahead to the rave review I was going to give it. And then I started getting a little annoyed with it and by the end, I was decidedly lackluster about it.

Rosenblatt writes about life after loss as a proud husband, father and grandfather. Making Toast is basically a collection of anecdotes and family stories. In these stories, Rosenblatt captures the vibrancy of Amy’s life, the virtues of his other children and their families, the unexpected profundity from his grandchildren, and his wife’s capability in the unexpected responsibilities of caring for Amy’s children.

This was one of my favorite anecdotes from the book:

[Amy] could also poke you gently with her wit. When she was about to graduate from the NYU School of Medicine, her class had asked me to be the speaker. A tradition of the school allows a past graduate to place the hood of the gown on a current graduate. Harris, who had graduated the previous year, was set to “hood” Amy. At dinner the night before the ceremony, a friend remarked, “Amy, isn’t it great? Your dad is giving the graduation speech, and your fiance is doing the hood.” Amy said, “It is. And it’s also pretty great that I’m graduating.”

Rosenblatt also recounts the many gestures of sympathy and support from his friends and his daughter’s friends and acquaintances. The Rosenblatts and Amy’s family are fortunate to be firmly ensconced in a large network of kind, generous people. There is almost always an element of loneliness to grief, but in Making Toast, this is outweighed by the sense of community and family drawing together.

On the one hand, it is somewhat refreshing to see a memoir where the author rarely has anything bad to say about anyone. On the other hand, as I felt that Rosenblatt was only telling the best, and most clever and most funny stories about his family, Making Toast started to seem a little too tidy. I don’t mean tidy in organization, but tidy – and carefully selective – in its depiction of grief. Rosenblatt does include a few stories about his own grieving process, but they still seemed reserved and comprised the least compelling part of the book for me.

Another thing that soured my response to Making Toast was the name-dropping. At first, when Rosenblatt mentioned a famous colleague or friend, I told myself, ‘okay, so he has well-known friends, so what? that’s his life.’ But the more famous names were mentioned, the more I felt uneasy.

Additionally, I felt thrown by his references to certain private schools and other marks of a fairly privileged life. I wasn’t sure how to assess my reaction to these things. What did this say about me that this stuff bothered me? In the end, I settled on this explanation: I don’t begrudge the Rosenblatts any of their connections or privileges, but it did make them less relatable. I think I personally am more moved by stories of people who overcome with fewer resources at their disposal.

I don’t believe Rosenblatt was trying to flaunt his life to readers. One would hope not, anyway. I think in a way Making Toast was his written thank-you to all the people who reached out to him and his family during this time – from the considerate teachers at his grandchildrens’ school to famous journalists and authors. Unfortunately, for me, this approach resulted in an off-putting tinge of insularity.

I know that a number of readers and critics have loved this book. I feel curmudgeonly for criticizing a memoir about someone’s loss, but I’ve tried to unpack my reasons for not loving it, and hopefully they have made sense.

Other reviews:

Book Chatter – “Overall, it’s a touching story but I never really got to know anyone within it, so it sort of left me with an “unfinished” feeling.”

The House of the Seven Tails – “I thought this was a wonderful book as Rosenblatt’s writing makes getting to know his daughter Amy an enjoyable experience and something I didn’t expect in a memoir about death and grief.”

Sophisticated Dorkiness – “Rosenblatt’s writing is clean and purposeful and he writes with such love for every single one of the people in the story that you can’t help get pulled in.”

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6 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Memoir and Personal Essays

6 responses to “Making Toast: A Family Story by Roger Rosenblatt

  1. Nice review, Christy! It is nice to know that you liked the book, atleast the initial parts, though it is sad to know that you found Rosenblatt a bit insular in what he describes and also you found it uncomfortable when he goes around name-dropping. From your review, it looks like this is an interesting book. I personally think that memoirs on grief written by women authors are better, because women authors have a way of putting complex feelings on the page. I might be generalizing here, but this is what I feel. Have you read Joan Didion’s memoir ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’?

  2. This is a really nice review. I think you’ve made clear points about what frustrated you about the book. I guess I didn’t see any of those things when I read it, but we all read things differently 🙂

  3. Ti

    Thanks for the pingback. I wanted this memoir to be so much more. Much of it was sweet, but it felt as if he was just giving us little bits here and there and not really diving in and giving us the emotion that we expected. I suspect that he wasn’t quite ready to talk about his experiences.

  4. Vishy – I haven’t read enough memoirs on grief to have my own opinion on it. But I have heard Didion’s book recommended a number of times and it is probably on my to-read list somewhere. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Kim – I feel like I’ve been pretty harsh on memoirs this year, which makes me wonder if it’s entirely the books or I’m just not feeling the memoirs right now.

    Ti – I agree with the things you say about this book in your review, such as the feeling that there are filters still in place for the author.

  5. I read this book this spring, and I pretty much completely agree with you. But you said it so much better than me! If you’re looking for other grief memoirs I also strongly recommend the Didion (I just got her newest one, which is about the death of her daughter, but Year I have read and it was amazing.) And Half a Life by Darin Strauss, An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken, and Comfort by Ann Hood. I’ve read several of these in the last years.

  6. Carin – glad to hear another person who was in the same boat. And thanks for all the recommendations! I’ve of course heard of Didion’s book, and also McCracken’s, but not the others.

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