“What do people do on the morning that they know will be their last?”
Johanna Adorján’s lovely and haunting memoir “An Exclusive Love” (Norton) follows this question into an exploration of her grandparents’ enigmatic double suicide. The narrative is structured around the author’s imagined reconstruction of the last day her grandparents were alive. Although much of this day is fictionalized, she builds the events and interactions out of minute details from the interior of their Danish home, as well as a vast recollection of her grandparents’ idiosyncrasies.
Woven in and out of this imagined day is Adorján’s own very real search for the truth about her grandparents’ lives and deaths. The pair had survived the Holocaust and, like many others, hid those memories away in an attempt to lead normal lives. The author interviews various family members and friends, revisits photographs and letters, and travels to Hungary and Denmark and France in an effort to prod the mystery they left behind.
Her prose often reflects this poignant pursuit: “I walk around Budapest, trying to imagine the city as it once was. Here and there the eastern bloc has left behind ugly brown box-shaped buildings that now accommodate hotel chains, but if you narrow your eyes and let everything blur slightly you can guess at the past.”
Like most memoirs about suicide, Adorján’s is pulled along by a loose set of unanswered questions surrounding her grandparents’ death. She imagines their conversations that day, the tying up of loose ends, the rationalizing of self-murder. The fact that these questions will remain unanswerable allows them to hover over the story, truly embodying the baffling nature of suicide bereavement.
Underlying Adorján’s personal search are the fascinating cultural implications surrounding the increased suicide rate among elderly Holocaust survivors. While not explicitly addressed, the nature of this paradox complicates the author’s emotions toward her grandparents’ self-destruction.
“At any point in life there are always just three possibilities: you can do something, you can do nothing, or you can kill yourself. Is that an idea to give one strength? Because it makes everything, even bad times, seem to be a free choice? Did the idea of determining her own end make my grandmother feel better? Did it give her the certainty that she would never again be at anyone’s mercy?”
Throughout the narrative she admits anger, confusion, sadness, but she never once allows her emotions to take over. Adorján maintains a cool distance from her emotions and her subject matter, allowing the reader to willingly tag along for her journey without being led—especially into sentimentality.
Unlike many memoirs, this story generally points outward toward her grandparents’ experience as opposed to structuring a more inward focus on herself. She is reflective enough establish her credibility, but she doesn’t overburden the narrative with self-exploration. In this work Adorján is the guide, asking all the right questions and maintaining a striking sense of objectivity. She places more of an emphasis on “why did this happen” than “why did this happen to me.”
One intimate personal thread she returns to throughout the piece is the uncovered set of similarities between her and her grandmother. It is clear Adorján has an intense emotional connection and admiration for her father’s mother. As her investigation reveals more and more of their shared ideals and eccentricities, she discovers a fulfilling—and rather sad—kinship, of which she never realized the full extent.
This book is an honest and evocative portrayal of one writer’s search toward the elusive truth about her grandparents’ suicides. Despite the shadow of their deaths, this story is very much a tribute to their rich and complicated lives.