In Search of Understanding

The Why of Things: A Novel - Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop

By Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop
Simon & Schuster, $24.99, 320 pages


Grief is a universal experience but also an exquisitely personal one. Winthrop captures the duality perfectly in this touching novel about one family’s journey through unimaginable loss. We meet Joan and Anders Jacobs and their daughters, Eve and Eloise, on their way to the family’s summer home in Cape Ann, on a route they’ve driven dozens of times. It’s different now, though, because oldest daughter Sophie isn’t there. The loss hangs in the air, undiscussed, until a harrowing scene at the vacation home forces them to face head-on the ways a life can end, the connections that are lost, and the ones who remain.


Winthrop takes a gentle tone throughout, mining the lyrical thoughts of the teenage Eve—“When the moon is facing left, is it growing, or has it already been full?”—alongside the careful conversations between her parents, and the bedtime fears seven-year-old Eloise hides in order to protect her parents. Some scenes are downright weepy, such as when Eloise sends her father off for the day with the chocolate brownie from her lunch, but Winthrop doesn’t so much dwell on the sadness as allow it. In doing so, she lets her characters feel what they need to feel and, ultimately, move on with a new understanding and appreciation of life.


Reviewed by Sheila Trask for San Francisco Book Review