Roger Rosenblatt: Making Toast (2010) A Memoir

Family tragedy is healed by domestic routine in this quiet, tender memoir. When his daughter Amy died suddenly at the age of 38 from an asymptomatic heart condition, journalist and novelist Rosenblatt (Lapham Rising) and his wife moved into her house to help her husband care for their three young children.  Building on the small events of everyday life, Rosenblatt draws sharply etched portraits of his grandchildren; his stoic, gentle son-in-law; his wife, who feels slightly guilty that she is living her daughter’s life; and Amy emerges as a smart, prickly, selfless figure whose significance the author never registered until her death.

I read memoirs for many different reasons. In some cases because of the topic but mostly because of the writing. Some of the most original and powerful writing nowadays can be found in life-writing. I’m fascinated by the diversity of memoir writing and the different approaches. The memoirs I like best are those written by writers or poets. I didn’t mind the topic of Making Toast but it isn’t why I chose to read it. I was intrigued because many reviews of Making Toast mentioned the style. I agree, it is beautifully written, very subtle, diverse and it works on many different levels. I took my time to read and savour it. You can’t really read it in one go, as every chapter, be it a few sentences long or a few pages, has another rhythm. The individual paragraphs read like micro-fiction but they still form a homogenous whole.

Rosenblatt’s daughter Amy dies unexpectedly at the age of 38. Nobody knew she suffered from an extremely rare heart disease. One morning, while working out in the basement, she collapses and dies on the spot where she is found by her eldest child. Amy was a doctor, a wife and a mother of three little children, the youngest barely one year old.

Rosenblatt and his wife Ginny decide to move in with their son-in-law Harris and the three little children. They want to help them cope with the multitude of daily tasks and duties and try to assist them in overcoming the tragic loss.

One of the core themes is how the children deal with their loss and the huge responsibility and also the strain it means for an elderly couple to take care of small children.

The book is touching, thoughtful, poetic, sad, but also beautiful and moving. Some paragraphs contain thoughts and musings, others describe scenes and anecdotes. Many chapters narrate Amy’s childhood and the past, others render everyday life and how to deal with the loss of a cherished person.

I was slightly taken aback by the unfriendly reader reviews.  Especially the German translation triggered a lot of spiteful comments. People remarked that he didn’t “mourn properly” that he sounded full of himself and they also criticized his mentioning of their wealth, that they can afford a nanny for the children and own houses.  I can’t understand these comments. Rosenblatt wrote this book in a restrained way which I found very appealing. He is neither weepy nor whining and especially not exhibitionistic, still you feel the grief in each line, you sense the bewilderment in every word. The family’s wealth doesn’t make Amy’s death any less tragic. I really don’t think Rosenblatt is self-publicizing unless you consider every personal essay or memoir to be an indecent display of someone’s life. But if so, why read it?

I found this book wonderful. It contains a lot of little endearing episodes like the one that gave the book its title, in which Rosenblatt states that the only thing he is really good at is making toast for the whole family in the morning. He describes how he gets up very early and, taking into consideration each family member’s taste, he produces a multitude of personalized breakfast toasts.

Making Toast is a book for readers and writers alike. If you like memoirs you will enjoy reading this well-written, lovely book. If you would like to write a memoir you will find this book inspiring in its original approach.