Barbara Isn’t Dying by Alina Bronsky
A tale of a supremely disagreeable man who must learn to be a fully functioning human being when his wife takes ill and can no longer serve him hand and foot. Bitter and sweet and with a redemptive ending.
Walter Schmidt is a jerk. There can be no argument about that. His wife, Barbara cooks, cleans, cares for the children, manages the house, cans produce from the garden, keeps the freezer full of food she has prepared for emergency use, well, everything, really. Walter considers all this to be nothing more than his due as the breadwinner. He is an electrical repairman who does have some skills, but he leaves the house (mostly the kitchen, which he never enters, except to pass through) entirely to Barbara. Until one morning she doesn’t get up. Walter goes to the kitchen, anxious for his morning cup of coffee, and realizes he doesn’t know how to make it. After receiving some cursory instructions from his wife, he attempts the brew but is a miserable failure. He goes to the local bakery, procures some rolls and a cup of java and returns. Soon, though, it becomes apparent that this strategy will not carry him through what seems to be the beginning of a long illness during which Barbara will not be able to perform her wifely duties.
In the first surprise of the book, Walter begins to watch a cooking show on television and tries out some simple recipes (boiling a potato) and makes a sincere if inept attempt at preparing food that his ailing wife will eat. He slowly gains skills, but when his children arrive to see what is happening with their mother, they point out that the kitchen floor needs to be cleaned, laundry needs to be done and the imperative to do a number of other tasks the existence of which he has never imagined. His relationship with his children has always been rocky, and that does not change. He is a prickly person and the only one to truly tolerate him is Barbara.
As time goes on, he associates with outside friends and acquaintances, hires a household helper and becomes marginally responsible for the jobs his wife has previously undertaken. Just when the reader begins to feel a little sympathy for him, though, he will blurt out some ethnic slur or misogynistic comment that places him back firmly in the category of the vile. It is due to the skill of the author that we feel anything resembling affection for this unrelievedly unpleasant man. Still, Walter grows on us, in spite of his shortcomings as a human being. Bronsky is a prolific writer and the craft she has mastered is on full display here. There is an especially touching episode at the end of the book that is not only unexpected but truly redemptive.