The story of a daughter who died well
The art of losing is hard to master, and Douglas Hobbie’s Being Brett: Chronicle of a Daughter’s Death is a valiant struggle for such command. The book begins with Brett’s discovery of a lump her second year out of Smith and recounts the rocky sequence of near-cures and thwarted hopes, chemotherapies and bone-marrow procedures, generously honest and cruelly honest doctors. It also describes the close lesbian relationship that saw her through the abandonment of her new life, in San Francisco, for the landscape of her past; Brett lived out her final months between the family house in Conway, Massachusetts, and a light-filled apartment in Northampton. What is most compelling about Being Brett is the trajectory of the events related: Brett Hobbie had the rare gift of being ennobled by disease, and between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-seven she became steadily more remarkable and steadily more ill, so that by the time she died the loss was even more unbearable than could have been anticipated. She confronted Hodgkin’s disease with tough intelligence and lots of humor and a certain lyrical wistfulness. Her father cannot equal that tone, but he can report it. You feel that, in his stolid, affectionate way, he has missed some of the picture, but one accomplishment of his book is that it allows that insight.
We hunger for elegies to rationalize disease’s modern rituals, encomiums to insure that what is lost is not forgotten. Our fascination with such work is both sentimental and ghoulish, but the texts must not be either. The most powerful fact of the writing here is Hobbie’s ambivalence about it. He knows only too well that htis evocation serves therapeutic purposes of his own, and that a professionally successful elegy has its morally dubious aspect. His voice is also shot with a larger uneasiness and guilt, as though he were begging you to believe that he tried his hardest, ventured his best, loved as fully as he could. The visible striving might under other circumstances seem awkward, but here it is simply moving: this book is also the narrative of what a father did in the face of the senseless fact that he went on living when his daughter did not.
Despite annoying stylistic tics — maudlin italics, a self-conscious use of the third-person pronoun to denote the first-person narrator, a heavy post-Hemingway flatness in the detailing of emotionally charge events — Hobbie’s prose gets swept up by what he is saying, and often arrives at a disarming clarity of expression. Few authors can with such honesty render the profundity of their own love. The antepenultimate chapter, called “Home,” describes a miraculous final summer, when suddenly, for a moment, Brett was nearly free of symptoms and gave herself over to her family and friends. By then, not the fruit of experience but experience was her goal, and Hobbie’s attempt to linger in that moment by recounting its hallowed commonplaces achieves the same ecstasy that must have characterized that season.
At times, you almost wish that you didn’t have the mediating voice of Douglas Hobbie, that you could just hear from Brett herself. But that is because her father has conjured her so vividly and immensely, and with so much palpable adoration, that she seems more real even than he does. “I don’t want to be a person again. It’s too painful,” Brett said shortly before her death. In this uncommon memoir, she is a person again, and it’s both painful and vital.