When you’re a writer and your husband suddenly dies at a young age, your natural inclination is to write about it. “That’s what we do as writers, isn’t it, write about all the bad things that happen to us?” a character asks in Leslie Pietrzyk’s new collection of stories, This Angel on My Chest. Alexandria-based Pietrzyk knew that people—particularly her fellow writers—expected her to write about her first husband’s fatal heart attack when he was just 37. But she feared that turning her loss into a potentially profitable, popular book could be seen as exploitative. Through her characters, Pietrzyk acknowledges her discomfort about this internal conflict, with the ultimate hope to avoid judgment.
But it’s not by anticipating criticism that Pietrzyk escapes it—it’s through the power of her writing. Her single-minded obsession with Robb’s death—which unfolds over a dozen stories about young women who have lost their husbands, told in various formats including a quiz, list, and an index of foods mentioned in the book—shows how she uses writing as a mechanism for processing his death. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion once famously said. (The quote serves as This Angel on My Chest’s epigraph.) Pietrzyk needs to write these stories to grapple with her own grief, but that doesn’t mean the stories demand an outside audience. Still, by turning her personal experience into a universal story of loss, Pietrzyk transforms the stream-of-consciousness of a diary into a compelling narrative.
Borrowing its title from a Bruce Springsteen lyric in the song “Backstreets,” This Angel on My Chest often uses such minor cultural cues as a signifier to confront the powerful nuances of her marriage. The song appears in one of the stories, bringing together its narrator and her late husband when they meet in college. “I’d never exactly understood what it meant—or what the song meant—or who betrayed who—and was Terry a boy or a girl—though I’d listened alone to the lyrics on repeat on my record player many long, late, unsettled nights,” Pietrzyk writes. This thought exemplifies a larger theme that Pietrzyk grapples with throughout the book: What is the truth? What is the difference between what happened and “being honest,” and how does who is telling the story influence it?
Like the character that incessantly listens to “Backstreets,” Pietrzyk must retell the story of her first husband’s death over and over. It’s catharsis: The more she tells it, the more she believes that it happened and understands what it means for her life now. Sometimes she tells the story in the first person, other times in the surprisingly effective, immersive second person (“You’re a writer. That’s how you solve problems: You write about them.”). Sometimes the husband dies of a brain aneurysm; other times he dies in a car accident. Sometimes the wife has been unfaithful; other times the dead husband has been in love with someone else. Readers can’t help but wonder: How much of this really happened and how much of this is just a story? But these questions are a distraction from the core of the book, which is an exploration of how it feels to lose someone you love. Pietrzyk proves that she can get closer to the truth when she has the freedom to change the details.
This Angel on My Chest is as much about writing and storytelling as it is about grief. The narrator is self-conscious about her writing process—how it departs from basic storytelling rules, how her work compares to the kinds of books that sell. These passages convey the idea that real life doesn’t follow the neat rules of the ideal story—though sometimes Pietrzyk’s criticism of the writing establishment can be excessive. The reader doesn’t care about the rule of three; the reader cares about the cornflakes Robb was eating when he had the heart attack, that he once compared the author to an avocado, that he loved malted milk balls. It’s in those minute details that Pietrzyk breathes life into stories about death.