Reviewed by Amy Fish
Well, the problem with Eileen Vorbach Collins’ memoir Love in the Archives: a patchwork of true stories of suicide loss (Apprentice House; November 2023) is that it’s just too good. Too well-written, too illustrative, too raw. And I’ll tell you why that’s a problem: because the subject matter — teenage suicide — is very difficult to read. Vorbach Collins cracks open her grief from her daughter Lydia’s death and spills it onto the table for us to observe and to absorb.
This book has the one key element that I believe every memoirist aspires to achieve: as a reader, I felt that Vorbach Collins was talking directly to me. Her voice is real, and she shares details that make it so easy to picture what she is describing. For example, “I walked into the room where my husband pitched and swayed and a primal scream escaped my throat before the image had fully registered in my brain. I almost dropped the baby.”
The author is fair in her portrayal of her relationship with her daughter. She imagines what her daughter might have been thinking about her, even though it is not necessarily a compliment. She imagines that, at 13, Lydia was likely furious at being forced to go to summer camp, and on the drive to camp was likely thinking: “If my crazy mother doesn’t stop singing along with that damn Willie Nelson tape, I’m going to poke pencils in my ears.” But then, Vorbach Collins captures the contradiction so typical of teenagers: “I can tell mom is tired, she’s looking stressed so I’m keeping quiet. I almost feel bad that we hid the Willie Nelson tape.”
She tells us how her daughter died but we don’t feel manipulated. We are not taken through the discovery of her body in minute detail. There are a few references to a “lifeless body with the red macrame belt around her neck” but they shared to explain how she died and how she was found. The narrator is vulnerable with us, but in a genuine way. I didn’t roll my eyes once.
The essays are not organized chronologically, which works. I collected snippets of information as I read, and the basic timeline started to unfold.
Which brings me to the overall assessment that this book is impossibly sad. I understand that reading it is nothing compared to living it. I also understand that you are relying on me to give you an honest review and, with that in mind, I have to tell that I needed to take breaks while reading. I had to read a lighter book along side it – a cheesy romance, if you must know – to balance some of the pain with frivolity. It’s not the author’s fault that this was necessary. It’s because she’s too good at writing this heartbreaking story.
I could not recommend this book more highly.