The Book of Dahlia: A Novel

  • Review
By – November 9, 2011

Packed with hearty dos­es of wit and empa­thy, Elisa Albert’s debut nov­el tells the sto­ry of Dahlia Fin­ger, a dis­sat­is­fied, out-of-work twen­ty-nine year-old, who lives in the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia con­do her father pur­chased for her. Dahlia spends her days idly watch­ing movies on cable TV, get­ting stoned, and day­dream­ing of one day apply­ing to grad­u­ate school. Late one night, Dahlia unex­pect­ed­ly suf­fers a grand mal seizure, and is sub­se­quent­ly diag­nosed with an inop­er­a­ble brain tumor. 

What fol­lows from this star­tling news is both a chron­i­cle of Dahlia’s health cri­sis and the sto­ry of her com­ing-of-age, ret­ro­spec­tive­ly told in seam­less­ly-con­struct­ed snap­shots. Wound­ed famil­ial rela­tion­ships come to the fore, and Dahlia must con­front her agree­able yet world-weary father, her hos­tile old­er broth­er, and her ever-dis­tant moth­er. Rather than mak­ing peace and set­tling past feuds how­ev­er, Dahlia remains sar­cas­tic and head­strong, unwill­ing to adopt a sac­cha­rine per­son­al­i­ty. She grudg­ing­ly buys a self-help book that sug­gests she fol­low a can­cer to-do list.” From here, Albert’s nov­el works in dia­logue with this all-too-cheer­ful book, as Dahlia refus­es to be blind­ly opti­mistic in the face of her ill­ness. A pow­er­ful med­i­ta­tion on mor­tal­i­ty, Albert’s rich­ly expres­sive nov­el pos­sess­es that rare qual­i­ty of mak­ing life feel whol­ly real.

From the Rohr Judges

Meet Dahlia: hilar­i­ous, pro­fane, drift­ing, thought­ful, angry, inop­er­a­ble. The pro­tag­o­nist of Elisa Albert’s first nov­el has her life and her mind brought into sud­den focus by the dis­cov­ery of her aggres­sive brain tumor. But make no mis­take: The Book of Dahlia isn’t a sac­cha­rine sto­ry of the nobil­i­ty that comes with accept­ing fate grace­ful­ly. Instead, Dahlia’s own ragged, frus­trat­ing jour­ney towards the end feels much more pro­found­ly, if com­i­cal­ly real­ized. Bring­ing her mem­o­ries, her fam­i­ly, her lovers into the sto­ry, Albert ren­ders Dahlia unfor­get­table by virtue of who she is, not what she’s done, in an indeli­ble voice that lingers long after the novel’s final page.

Elisa Albert on The Book of Dahlia

A steady and con­stant writ­ing life is the ulti­mate goal for me. Push­ing for­ward and quite sim­ply doing the work, day in and day out. It’s a huge chal­lenge for me: I tend, quite hon­est­ly, toward rather dra­mat­ic bursts of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty book-end­ed by peri­ods of cre­ative despon­den­cy and self-loathing. I feel like I’ve con­quered the world and the worst in myself when I can just do the work, do the work, do the work, and let the chips fall where they may. 

On the broad­est lev­el, and at its best, fic­tion can do mirac­u­lous things: show us bits and pieces of our­selves in sto­ries with which we might not oth­er­wise imme­di­ate­ly iden­ti­fy, expand our capac­i­ty for real-life empa­thy by forc­ing us to empathize with char­ac­ters we’ll nev­er actu­al­ly meet, and make us think about how vast­ly dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on the world can form a real­ly vibrant, if chal­leng­ing, harmony.

Read­ing Group Guide

From: Simon and Schus­ter

Dis­cus­sion Ques­tions

1. What was your ini­tial impres­sion of Dahlia? Did your opin­ion change as the sto­ry pro­gressed and sig­nif­i­cant details about her life expe­ri­ence were revealed? Why or why not?

2. What do you think about the idea that a pos­i­tive atti­tude is the most impor­tant ingre­di­ent for a hap­py, healthy life? Why does Dahlia resist this the­o­ry, and what does it tell us about her? Do you think Dahli­a’s atti­tude dooms” her? Many of us have had expe­ri­ences with can­cer, either per­son­al­ly or in our fam­i­lies. In our expe­ri­ences, how has this dic­tate to be pos­i­tive” affect­ed us and our loved ones? Is there a part of us that wants to kick and scream and com­plain and feel sor­ry for our­selves, even though we know it’s not pro­duc­tive? Dis­cuss your own expe­ri­ences with ill­ness. Does ill­ness trans­form us? Why or why not?

3. Sure, the sit­u­a­tion was bad, but Dahlia felt free, freer than ever, to do what she did best: muck around in the heinous real­i­ty of it. She was unim­peach­able. She could say and think and feel what­ev­er she want­ed. She had can­cer! (p. 40)” On some lev­el is Dahlia a lit­tle bit glad to have this ter­mi­nal ill­ness? Does she believe it lends weight and shape and mean­ing and con­fir­ma­tion to her enor­mous unhap­pi­ness?

4. Dahlia spends a lot of her time watch­ing tele­vi­sion, often view­ing the same movies on cable over and over again. Why is watch­ing famil­iar movies a kind of prayer (p. 6)” for Dahlia?

5. Dis­cuss Dahli­a’s rela­tion­ship with her broth­er, Dan­ny. What com­pels her to pur­sue a rela­tion­ship with him for so many years despite his thought­less cru­el­ty to her? What does her per­sis­tent devo­tion to and ado­ra­tion for Dan­ny tell us about her? Why, then, do you think Dahlia refus­es to for­give Dan­ny even on her deathbed?

6. A vile, self-absorbed, depress­ing, lazy, messy, spoiled, f — ed-up, prob­a­bly men­tal­ly ill los­er dies. So what?” mus­es The Book of Dahlia (p. 252). How would you answer one of the nov­el­’s cen­tral ques­tions: Is a seem­ing­ly wast­ed” life worth mourn­ing?

7. If you found her dif­fi­cult to like in gen­er­al, are there nev­er­the­less things about Dahlia that you do find sym­pa­thet­ic? Can you think of some emo­tion­al or psy­cho­log­i­cal ways in which Dahlia does indeed tri­umph? When we encounter a char­ac­ter with whom we don’t total­ly iden­ti­fy, what can we learn about our­selves from our reac­tions?

8. What do you think is use­ful about art (lit­er­a­ture, music, film, paint­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy) that is depress­ing” or full of angst and pain? What do you gain from look­ing at or read­ing or watch­ing or lis­ten­ing to a work of art that is sad or unpleas­ant as opposed to cheer­ful and uplift­ing? Do you think we can learn from depress­ing” art, or should we want to see only hap­py things?

9. What do you think the nar­ra­tor means in call­ing Dahli­a’s sto­ry a lit­mus test (p. 252)”? Do you think you passed or failed this test and why?

10. If Dahlia made you feel judg­men­tal or unsym­pa­thet­ic, dis­cuss how and why you dis­like her. In what ways does a char­ac­ter like Dahlia make us con­front our own fears and regrets? What role has resent­ment played in your own life, and how have you con­quered it or strug­gled to con­quer it? Dis­cuss a time in your life when you were bogged down in neg­a­tive emo­tions, and talk about how you got through it.

11. Giv­en the choice to wal­low in self-pity and anger and resent­ment or take charge of our lives and let go of the past, how and why are we some­times able to choose the lat­ter? What makes a per­son strong enough to Choose Life” ver­sus some­one who is unable to do so?

12. How do you think our soci­ety as a whole deals with death? Are you sat­is­fied or dis­sat­is­fied with the cul­tur­al and reli­gious ideas about death that you’ve encoun­tered? What are your own atti­tudes about and notions of death? How have these changed through­out your life? Is it some­thing you think about often? Why or why not?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Elisa Albert has said that Leo Tol­stoy’s novel­la The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Susan Son­tag’s essay Ill­ness as Metaphor” served as inspi­ra­tions for The Book of Dahlia. Read those works and dis­cuss the­mat­ic over­laps.

2. Read Albert’s short sto­ry col­lec­tion, How This Night Is Dif­fer­ent, and dis­cuss its sim­i­lar­i­ties to and dif­fer­ences from The Book of Dahlia.

3. Learn more about the author by vis­it­ing her web­site www​.elisaal​bert​.com, where you can find inter­views, pro­files, and reviews of The Book of Dahlia and How This Night Is Dif­fer­ent.

4. Lis­ten to Albert’s inter­view with Scott Simon on NPR’s Week­end Edi­tion at http://​www​.npr​.org/​t​e​m​p​l​a​t​e​s​/​s​t​o​r​y​/​s​t​o​r​y​.​p​h​p​?​s​t​o​r​y​I​d​=​90157329.

5. Lis­ten to Albert’s pod­cast inter­view with Next­book edi­tor Ellen Uman­sky at http://​www​.next​book​.org/​c​u​l​t​u​r​a​l​/​f​e​a​t​u​r​e​.​h​t​m​l​?​i​d=795.

Phil Sandick is a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son. He has taught cours­es in lit­er­a­ture, com­po­si­tion, and cre­ative writ­ing since 2006. Phil is cur­rent­ly study­ing rhetoric and com­po­si­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na-Chapel Hill.

Discussion Questions