Winner of the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in 2014. Elf and Yoli are sisters. While on the surface Elfrieda's is an enviable life and Yolandi's is a mess, they are fiercely close, raised in a Mennonite household and sharing the hardship of Elf's desire to end her own life. After Elf's latest attempt, Yoli must quickly determine how to keep her family from falling apart, how to keep her own heart from breaking, and what it means to love someone who wants to die.
It’s a testament to the entertaining voice, emotional acuity and quick pacing of All My Puny Sorrows that it doesn’t become evident until about two-thirds of the way through how slight the plot is ... The flashbacks to Yoli and Elf’s childhood in a rural Mennonite community are vivid and energetic. In both the past and present, Toews perfectly captures the casual manner in which close-knit sisters enjoy and irritate each other. The dialogue is realistic and funny, and somehow, almost magically, Toews gets away with having her characters discuss things like books and art and the meaning of life without seeming pretentious or precious; they’re simply smart, decent and confused ... All My Puny Sorrows is unsettling, because how can a novel about suicide not be? But its intelligence, its honesty and, above all, its compassion provide a kind of existential balm.
In the crucible of her genius, tears and laughter are ground into some magical elixir that seems like the essence of life ... There are conversations in this novel so heartbreaking that you will be tempted to recoil, but Toews is working near the emotional territory of Lorrie Moore, where humor is a bulwark against despair ... Toews mines the frustration and absurdity of caring for someone set on self-destruction ... Between those distant poles, Toews hangs a tale about the unspeakable pain and surprising joy of persisting in the world, puny sorrows and all.
...what makes the book so good isn't exactly its story. It's the voice, which is present right there in the title, with its sense, partly Canadian perhaps, perhaps also partly Mennonite, of self-deferral. It's a voice that acknowledges the immensity of the world, and how consequently one's own problems matter at once so little and so much ... Wit can't wholly conceal the chief flaw of All My Puny Sorrows, which is aimlessness; if you have no real plot, your book should probably either be brief or really, really brilliant. This one is longish and maybe only really brilliant. But who cares? The experience of it is profound, and to leave it is to leave a world real enough that you feel it will continue on without you.