At the beginning of Nellie Hermann's novel The Cure for Grief (Scribner; 272 pages), the heroine, Ruby Bronstein, has three brothers and two parents. Ten years later, her family has been effectively halved, its members picked off by illness and death. The question at the heart of this story is simple: How does a girl manage to grow up while fighting the gravitational pull of a Shakespearean succession of tragedies?
Hermann tells Ruby's story in a cluster of episodes that set her family's misfortunes in the context of classic adolescent moments--a summer at camp, the junior prom. There is the Ruby who silently endures her eldest brother's collapse into schizophrenia, and there is the Ruby who wonders if the boy she talks to every night, cradling the phone in her bed, might ever look at her as more than a friend. It's a tricky balancing act, but for a first-time novelist, Hermann is remarkably sure-footed. When at age 14 Ruby accompanies her father, a Holocaust survivor, on his first visit to the camp where he was interned as a boy, she tries to imagine his experience but finds that "it was impossible; she could not make the leap." No sooner has she admitted failure than she notices, walking beside him, that her strides and his are suddenly in synch. "You're getting so tall," her father observes, and a connection is established between them, albeit not the one she was looking for.
The calamities that strike Hermann's characters might be outtakes from the Book of Job, but she renders them with an emotional acuity that makes them believable. And though the shifts in perspective that frame the novel may seem gimmicky, the rhythmic quality of the prose never falters. As for the bleak title, it will surprise the reader to find that, for Ruby at least, there is a cure for grief. It is hard won, yes--but, in Hermann's telling, it's worth the winning.