by Cheryl Strayed


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In her debut novel, the bestselling author of Wild weaves a searing and luminous tale of a family's grief after unexpected loss.

"Work hard. Do good. Be incredible!" is the advice Teresa Rae Wood shares with the listeners of her local radio show, Modern Pioneers, and the advice she strives to live by every day. She has fled a bad marriage and rebuilta life with her children, Claire and Joshua, and their caring stepfather, Bruce. Their love for each other binds them as a family through the daily struggles of making ends meet. But when they received unexpected news that Teresa, only 38, is dying of cancer, their lives all begin to unravel and drift apart. Strayed's intimate portraits of these fully human characters in a time of crisis show the varying truths of grief, forgiveness, and the beautiful terrors of learning how to keep living.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345805614
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/12/2012
Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 167,007
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.89(d)

About the Author

CHERYL STRAYED is the author of the #1 New York Times best seller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which was the first selection for Oprah's Book Club 2.0 and became an Oscar-nominated film starring Reese Witherspoon;Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, a national best seller now the basis of the WBUR podcast Dear Sugar Radio, co-hosted with Steve Almond; and Torch, her debut novel. Her books have been translated into forty languages, and her essays and other writings have appeared in numerous publications.

Read an Excerpt

When I was nine someone gave me a blank diary. I don’t remember who. It was pure white and had a small golden lock that opened with a small golden key that was also meant to re-secure the lock, but never did. I loved that diary. I remember very distinctly knowing it was the best gift I’d ever received. I filled it with stories about princesses and kings, about horses ridden by girls whose fathers drove around in fancy cars. I wrote about things that were nothing about me.
When I was eleven a poet came to my school to teach a class for several days. She was called a poet-in-the-school, a special guest, a rare occurrence. Every minute she spoke it was like someone was holding a lit match to the most flammable, secret parts of me. One day the poet-in-the-school explained what metaphors were and then asked us to write a whole poem composed of them. I was a lion. I was an icicle. I was a kaleidoscope. I was a torn-up page. I was glass that other people took to be stone. Another day she told us we could write poems about our memories. She asked us to close our eyes and think for a while about when we were younger and then open our eyes and write. I wrote about running down the sidewalk in what I called “beautiful, filthy Pittsburgh” in my paint-speckled sneakers when I was five.
A week later the principal summoned me to his office. When I arrived he explained from behind his big desk that the poet-in-the-school had showed him my poem. “You’re a good writer!” he exclaimed. His name was Mr. Menzel. He was the first person to ever say this to me. He handed me a copy of my poem and asked if I would read it out loud to him and I did, mortified but also happy. After I was done reading he said it was surprising that I’d described Pittsburgh as being beautiful and filthy because most people would think it could not be both things at once. “Keep writing, Cheryl,” he said.
I kept writing.
I didn’t know that by doing so I was becoming a writer. I knew people wrote books, but it didn’t occur to me that I could be one of them until I was twenty and a junior at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, enrolled in an introductory poetry class taught by Michael Dennis Browne. I learned a lot in that class. I came to understand language in a way I’d never understood it. I wrote my first serious (though lousy) poems. But most important, I got to be in a room a few times a week with a writer who’d written not just one book, but many, and it was only then that it dawned on me that even though the gap between who he was and who I was seemed enormous, maybe—just maybe—I could bridge that gap and someday be a person who wrote a book too.
I’ve often been asked how long it took me to write Torch. There are three answers to this question and they are all true: four years, seven years, and thirty-four years. But the last answer is the truest. Torch is born of the little white diary with the lock that wouldn’t work, the poet-in-the-school who taught me what a metaphor was, the principal who said keep writing, the writer whose existence showed me the way. They are not in the acknowledgments of this book, but they are in its blood. Torch is the story I had broiling in my bones for the first thirty-four years of my life. It’s the story I felt I could not live without telling. The one that made me think I could die when I finished writing it (though I can’t and don’t want to). Perhaps every writer has this relationship to his or her first book. I worked my tail off when I wrote my other books, Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, but Torch is the book that taught me how to write a book and because of that it was the one that demanded the deepest faith, the greatest leap, the furthest reach.
Torch is a novel about a family in rural northern Minnesota during a time of great loss. Because I grew up in a place not unlike the place depicted in the novel and because my family experienced a great loss not unlike that of the Wood/Gunther family in the book, many people read Torch as if it’s nonfiction, but it is not. Like a lot of novelists, I drew on my life experiences while writing Torch—those who’ve read my other books will undoubtedly recognize some details about my mother and her death and the general landscape and culture of rural Aitkin County, Minnesota, where I came of age—but the autobiographical elements were only the seeds from which I created a fictional world.
Though it’s true my family and I listened to radio shows of the sort Teresa Wood hosts in Torch on the very real community station KAXE, my mother wasn’t a radio show host and I can’t imagine she’d have wanted to be, given the opportunity. My brother didn’t go to jail for dealing methamphetamines like Joshua Wood does. My stepfather wasn’t an only child who obsessively listened to the music of Kenny G in his grief like Bruce Gunther does. I didn’t have an affair while my mother lay dying in a hospital in Duluth like Claire Wood does.
In writing Torch, I wanted to tell a story that had no obligation to what actually happened and yet what happened had everything to do with my need to write Torch. One of the great paradoxes of writing fiction is that it’s often only through imagination that a writer can reveal the greatest truth. I certainly felt that way as I wrote Torch. I don’t know precisely what it meant for my stepfather to lose his wife or for my siblings to lose their mother, but in Torch I tried very hard to know. Fic- tion gave me license to seek. It allowed me to tell the only story I could at the time, one that exceeded the bounds of my own particular grief—a grief that was so enormous I couldn’t hold it alone. I needed to cast it into other bodies, other minds, and also to pay those other people their due. They had lost my mother too. I put the story of my family’s sorrow on a larger, mostly make-believe stage so I could make sense of how any of us had managed to come out the other side. In doing so, my allegiance wasn’t accuracy. It was emotional truth.
That’s what I mean when I tell you that Torch was broiling in my bones. It was the story of my life and yet I made everything up. I created characters, even as I felt the people I knew and loved in every word I wrote. I set the story in a place that both was and was not home. I named the town in Torch Midden—the medieval word for a communal garbage heap—not because I wanted to imply my beloved hometown of McGregor was a dump, but because a midden is the most valuable find when archeologists do their excavations. It’s the place where we recover the hidden treasures, both grand and mundane. In middens, the story of a people and a place can be found, but only if we dig.
Torch is the result of my first sustained effort at digging. When I scratched beneath the surface as I wrote it, I came to understand I didn’t know what I was going to find as each layer revealed itself. It was only after I’d finished that I could see what I’d done: written a novel not only about grief and loss, but also about love in its many forms, about how we find light in the midst of the most profound darkness, about how we survive what we think we will not. And it’s only from this vantage point—years after Torch was first published—that I can see all of my books are about that. How things can be both beautiful and filthy at once.

Chapter 1
She ached. As if her spine were a zipper and someone had come up behind her and unzipped it and pushed his hands into her organs and squeezed, as if they were butter or dough, or grapes to be smashed for wine. At other times it was something sharp like diamonds or shards of glass engraving her bones. Teresa explained these sensations to the doctor—the zipper, the grapes, the diamonds, and the glass— while he sat on his little stool with wheels and wrote in a note- book. He continued to write after she’d stopped speaking, his head cocked and still like a dog listening to a sound that was distinct, but far off. It was late afternoon, the end of a long day of tests, and he was the final doctor, the real doctor, the one who would tell her at last what was wrong.
Teresa held her earrings in the palm of one hand—dried violets pressed between tiny panes of glass—and put them on, still getting dressed after hours of going from one room to the next in a hospital gown. She examined her shirt for lint and cat hair, errant pieces of thread, and primly picked them off. She looked at Bruce, who looked out the window at a ship in the harbor, which cut elegantly, tranquilly along the surface of the lake, as if it weren’t January, as if it weren’t Minnesota, as if it weren’t ice.
At the moment she wasn’t in pain and she told the doctor this while he wrote. “There are long stretches of time that I feel perfectly fine,” she said, and laughed the way she did with strangers. She confessed that she wouldn’t be surprised if she were going mad or perhaps this was the beginning of menopause or maybe she had walking pneumonia. Walking pneumonia had been her latest theory, the one she liked best. The one that explained the cough, the ache. The one that could have made her spine into a zipper.
“I’d like to have one more glance,” the doctor said, looking up at her as if he had risen from a trance. He was young. Younger. Was he thirty? she wondered. He instructed her to take her clothes off again and gave her a fresh gown to wear and then left the room.
She undressed slowly, tentatively at first, and then quickly, crouching, as if Bruce had never seen her naked. The sun shone into the room and made everything lilac.
“The light—it’s so pretty,” she said, and stepped up to sit on the examining table. A rosy slice of her abdomen peeped out from a gap in the gown, and she mended it shut with her hands. She was thirsty but not allowed a drop of water. Hungry, from having not eaten since the night before. “I’m starving.”
“That’s good,” said Bruce. “Appetite means that you’re healthy.” His face was red and dry and cracked-looking, as if he’d just come in from plowing the driveway, though he’d been with her all day, going from one section of the hospital to the next, reading what he could find in the waiting rooms. Reading Reader’s Digest and Newsweek and Self against his will but reading hungrily, avidly, from cover to cover. Throughout the day, in the small spaces of time in which she too had had to wait, he’d told her the stories. About an old woman who’d been bludgeoned to death by a boy she’d hired to build a dog- house. About a movie star who’d been forced by divorce to sell his boat. About a man in Kentucky who’d run a marathon in spite of the fact that he had only one foot, the other made of metal, a complicated, sturdy coil fitted into a shoe.
The doctor knocked, then burst in without waiting for an answer. He washed his hands and brought his little black instrument out, the one with the tiny light, and peered into her eyes, her ears, her mouth. She could smell the cinnamon gum he chewed and also the soap he’d used before he touched her. She kept herself from blinking while staring directly into the bullet of light, and then, when he asked, followed his pen expertly around the room using only her eyes.
“I’m not a sickly woman,” she declared.
Nobody agreed. Nobody disagreed. But Bruce came to stand behind her and rub her back.
His hands made a scraping sound against the fabric of the gown, so rough and thick they were, like tree bark. At night he cut the calluses off with a jackknife.
The doctor didn’t say cancer—at least she didn’t hear him say it. She heard him say oranges and peas and radishes and ovaries and lungs and liver. He said tumors were growing like wildfire along her spine.
“What about my brain?” she asked, dry-eyed.
He told her he’d opted not to check her brain because her ovaries and lungs and liver made her brain irrelevant. “Your breasts are fine,” he said, leaning against the sink.
She blushed to hear that. Your breasts are fine.
“Thank you,” she said, and leant forward a bit in her chair. Once, she’d walked six miles through the streets of Duluth in honor of women whose breasts weren’t fine and in return she’d received a pink T-shirt and a spaghetti dinner.
“What does this mean exactly?” Her voice was reasonable beyond reason. She became acutely aware of each muscle in her face. Some were paralyzed, others twitched. She pressed her cold hands against her cheeks.
“I don’t want to alarm you,” the doctor said, and then, very calmly, he stated that she could not expect to be alive in one year. He talked for a long time in simple terms, but she could not make out what he was saying. When she’d first met Bruce, she’d asked him to explain to her how, precisely, the engine of a car worked. She did this because she loved him and she wanted to demonstrate her love by taking an interest in his knowledge. He’d sketched the parts of an engine on a napkin and told her what fit together and what parts made other parts move and he also took several detours to explain what was likely to be happening when certain things went wrong and the whole while she had smiled and held her face in an expression of simulated intelligence and understanding, though by the end she’d learned absolutely nothing. This was like that.
She didn’t look at Bruce, couldn’t bring herself to. She heard a hiccup of a cry from his direction and then a long horrible cough.
“Thank you,” she said when the doctor was done talking. “I mean, for doing everything you can do.” And then she added weakly, “But. There’s one thing—are you sure? Because... actually... I don’t feel that sick.” She felt she’d know it if she had oranges growing in her; she’d known immediately both times that she’d been pregnant.
“That will come. I would expect extremely soon,” said the doctor. He had a dimpled chin, a baby face. “This is a rare situation—to find it so late in the game. Actually, the fact that we found it so late speaks to your overall good health. Other than this, you’re in excellent shape.”

He hoisted himself up to sit on the counter, his legs dangling and swinging.

“Thank you,” she said again, reaching for her coat.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"I loved the honesty of this novel, the way it looked at every aspect of loss and recovery—the pain, the joy, the absurdity, the anger, the despair, the hope and the great beauty—without every holding back."—Elizabeth Berg

"A deeply honest novel of life after catastrophe, of intimacy lost and found." O, The Oprah Magazine

"Beautifully written and authentic in its portrayal of the unexpected fallout a family death can engender." People Magazine

"In language that's lyrical and haunting, Cheryl Strayed writes about bliss and loss, about the kind of grace that startles and transforms us in ordinary moments."—Ursula Hegi, author of Stones from the River

"Lovely." Entertainment Weekly

"A literary balm for those who know what it means to lose a parent." The Oregonian

"Shows how death can untie, and hopefully, in time, affirm, familiar bonds." The San Francisco Chronicle

"Cheryl Strayed proves a master of the little and the big, the telling details that cement the book's larger themes in mind and memory . . . an irresistibly engaging debut read." Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"[Strayed] goes fearlessly into this place of raw grief and inappropriate lust and desperate love . . . [her characters] live dense, perplexing, fascinating, and authentic lives."—Book World The Washington Post

"Torch is a steady stream of finely wrought portrayals of nuance, moments, and emotions." Newsday

"A hauntingly beautiful story written with tenderness and endowed with true insights into the frailty of relationships." Kirkus Reviews

"We know these characters so well and with such intricate understanding that their lives belong to us in a way that is the rare gift of fiction and a particular triumph of Strayed's wise and beautiful novel."—Susan Richards Shreve

"Strayed knows how to balance the heartache with humor, and the spiritual with the mundane, to create characters you begin to know like friends."—Pages

"Strayed writes fierce truths about how we live, [with] compassion, humor, and uncanny precision."—Sandra Scofield

"This book is a wonderful and heartening accomplishment."—George Saunders

"Shimmers with a humane grace." Philadelphia Weekly

"An unforgettable read." Library Journal

Reading Group Guide

The introduction, questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Cheryl Strayed’s Torch.

1. Torch has been compared to Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. Have you read other fiction or nonfiction works that share the themes of Torch? What are the challenges of dealing with issues of grief in fiction? In nonfiction?

2. The novel takes place in Midden, Minnesota, a fictional small midwestern town. How does the setting of the novel inform the characters and their actions? Would you agree that the town serves as a character in the novel and if so, how?

3. Teresa is the host of a local radio show called Modern Pioneers. In what ways does this show reflect her personality and her family? How does the radio show affect the characters throughout the course of the novel?

4. Teresa flees a bad marriage and has a long, loving relationship with Bruce in which she believes she is setting a good example for her children. What is your opinion of Bruce as a husband and father?

5. Teresa’s children, Claire and Joshua, have a good but sometimes strained relationship with their mother at the start of the novel. How does their relationship change when they learn Teresa has cancer?

6. Explore the reactions of Bruce, Claire, and Joshua to Teresa’s diagnosis. How did you feel about their actions? Are they typical of someone facing tragedy or misfortune? How would you act if you found yourself in the same situation?

7. In the hospital, Claire and Bruce meet the grief counselor Pepper Jones-Kachinsky, who preaches strength through faith. How is Claire’s response to Pepper different from that of Bruce? What role does faith play in the novel and in your own life?

8. Teresa’s death prompts each of the main characters to choose a new path for themselves. Bruce takes the most dramatic step, while Claire and Joshua struggle in their sibling relationship and in their romantic relationships. How is their decision-making complicated by Teresa’s absence from their lives?

9. Although Bruce is their stepfather, he has a very strong bond with Claire and Joshua throughout his marriage to Teresa. How does Bruce’s relationship to Claire and Joshua change after Teresa’s death? How is the relationship complicated by the fact that he is not their biological father?

10. Cheryl Strayed writes of Claire, “She came to see that her grief did not have an end, or if it did, she would not be delivered there. Grief was not a road or a river or a sea but a world, and she would have to live there now.” How does this statement coincide with or differ from your own thoughts on grieving? Did you identify with the thoughts and actions of Bruce, Joshua, or Claire?

11. Although Torch is about the death of a loved one, it is also a story of a family confronting their grief and trying to heal. How would you describe the overall tone of the novel?

12. The novel begins with an epigraph from Jane Eyre: “Yet it would be your duty to bear it, if you could not avoid it: it is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required to bear.” Do the characters believe in fate and its effect on their lives? What is your view on fate in your own life?

Customer Reviews

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Torch 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 49 reviews.
AlexJR More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved this book. It was not a predictable story as I found myself reading further just to find out how it ended. It contained joy, sorrow and real life characters that the reader could relate to.I enjoyed following the main characters through their stages of grief and was not disappointed with the ending. It is a thought provoking, soul searching book which I would highly recommendto others.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just finished Cheryl Stayed's book. I found it very descriptive which meant it took longer to read than I thought it would. I thought I had it all figured out, but it didn't end that way. Those familiar with Northern Minnesota and the ethnicity of the area will thoroughly enjoy Strayed's names and locations. A well-written, authentic story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a beautiful story of family relationships. I really loved this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The writing is excellent and the Minnnesota references hit home. The characters are real. I ached for Claire and Josh who flounder without their mother but through it all realize they can survive even without her because her memory is alive and well. Children have perhaps more resiliency than adults do. It made me realize what a gift I am in my own children's lives.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this book because i was intrigued by the premise, sadly i will never get the 32 days back it took me to read this. I found the characters unlikeable especially Claire. The development of this book after the death was long, tedious and aggrevating. It took me more than a month to finish because i never became absorbed, and im not one to give up on a book. Don't waste your time on this - crime and punishment is an easier read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I wouldnt bother reading this book. It was very slow moving. Hard to stay focused. I found myself wanting to skip over parts of the book. I thought I would enjoy the Minnesota connection but it didnt help me enjoy the book at all.
judearn More than 1 year ago
I got this book because I had heard of the author and her life, and about how a trek through the woods changed it. I also am an RN with over 40 years experience, including hospice, and am interested in how people handle grief. However, this book was just tortuous for me to get through. It did have some good writing, but I really couldn't connect with any of the characters, and felt that the writing was scattered...too many characters, too much going on. I was relieved to finally get through it!!!AGGGH.
LisaMarie1019 More than 1 year ago
This book was agonizing to get through. Every time I started reading it, I would fall asleep. The one good quality it has is that the writing is very descriptive, but at the same time that seemed to make the story drag on and on. The characters did not seem very relatable in my opinion. I am all for characters with flaws, but all of these characters seemed to have way too many flaws. The ending didn't seem to resolve much in the way of the relationship between the kids and their step-dad either, which I found disappointing. There were also many parts that seemed to just be filler, and only served to drag the story out even longer. I can see where the author was trying to go with this book, but I just don't think she got there. Glad I purchased this when it was on sale and only wasted $1.99.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am forced to give this a 1-star in order to submit my review otherwise, it would appear as ZERO. I wish I knew of a way I could get a refund and delete this from my Library. If only I had read ALL the reviews before purchasing this book. The foul language has me closing my Nookbook on page 22. A writer should have enough vocabulary to create a story without resorting to foul language. The overview conveniently omitted the book could be offensive.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was way too depressing for me..couldn't finish it.
oldblack on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this to be an excellent book about a family dealing with the mother's diagnosis of cancer and her subsequent death. All of the characters in the book read as real people, and the situations they find themselves in are entirely believable. Coincidentally, I began reading this shortly after my sister was diagnosed with cancer, so I could relate to the story at a very personal level. Cheryl Strayed seems to have a remarkable insight into how the various people might interact and she describes their thoughts and actions in an amount of depth that I found very satisfying. I wonder what her own life experience brought to this story, so I will be interested to read her memoir "Wild", which is due to be published any day now. It's a pity she hasn't written more novels
ericaverr on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Whenever someone asks me for a book recommendation, Torch is the first title that pops into my head. I picked it up a few months ago, read the first line, and couldn't put it down. And, even after I was done, it stayed with me. That is my definition of a good book.But there was something more to this book than the fact that it was thoroughly engrossing and beautifully written. (There are many books which fall into this category.) What made this book stand out in my mind was the astounding courage of the author. Strayed tackled the difficult topic of grief with unflinching honesty, and without once sinking into sentimentality or bathos. Her characters were not only real in a way that one seldom encounters in fiction, but seemed possessed of that luminous quality of humanity that one only finds in an author who is not afraid to take life on its own terms. For this reason, Torch will always be on my "favorites" list.
bobbieharv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written novel about a family coping with their mother's death and the relationships they plunge into or out of as a result. Ending a little flat but a really good story.
morsecode on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Teresa Rae Wood is a firecracker. After escaping an abusive marriage she comes into her own. The host of her own radio show, Modern Pioneers!, Teresa lives an idyllic life in small-town Minnesota with common-law husband Bruce and her two children: 17-year-old Josh and 20-year-old Claire. When, out of the blue, Teresa is diagnosed with terminal cancer, the family's whole world changes. Within months Teresa is dead. Reeling from the shock, Bruce, Claire, and Josh falter; the family comes apart at the seams.Torch is less a novel about someone suffering from cancer as it is an exploration of the anatomy of grief. The whole feeling of the novel changes with Teresa's death. It becomes more fragmented, mirroring of the lives of the family.In Torch, Strayed looks honestly at grief and suffering. Her characters are fully realized, immensely human in their failings and small triumphs, and her descriptions of rural Minnesota have an air of authenticity. Smattered with the inescapable humor of everyday life, the novel is more than just sad. All this combines to make a story that, though it is fiction, is true.An accomplished novel -- a novel that does not read like a debut -- Torch speaks eloquently to anyone who has suffered a great loss. How it affects others, I can't honestly say. Reading this book and writing this review I can't hide from the fact that my best friend died when I was nine and that I make my husband change the channel whenever the trailer for the soon-to-be released Bridge to Terabitha movie comes on. And, that's a good thing.(15 Feb 2007)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good read —-lots of narrative fillers in the plot
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sat and sat and sat.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read Wild first. I was riveted so I had to read Torch. As someone thinking of writing their own story, I was fascinated by the way the author wrote it as a personal story with just hints of truth. I would love to meet this author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I too found this story some what tedious. Having read Wild, I wanted to know the earlier history. Sticking with it was a good thing as I could relate and empathize with all the characters. A very worth while story. I loved both books
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Joanne345 More than 1 year ago
Cheryl Strayed is surely one of the best authors I have read. Both in this book and in the book Wild, as well as in Tiny Beautiful Things. What strikes me the most about her writing is her pure honesty. She is not afraid to tell it like it is. This is the story of a woman being totally overwhelmed in her grief for her mother who dies so auickly after her cancer diagnoses. Her pure love for her mother is very poignant and brought many tears to my eyes. Also the love for her brother, although they show their grief in very different ways is like it is them against the world after their mothers death. This is a very well written deeply sad and beautiful story.
lindianajones More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this first time novel by Cheryl Strayed but if you have already read her nonfiction bestseller "Wild" there really is no point to reading this novel as it is basically a re-telling of her childhood which she already covered in "Wild".