At the start of Cheryl Strayed's deeply affecting Torch, thirty-eight-year-old Teresa Rae Wood learns that she only has seven months to live. The tumors are spreading like a wildfire,
along the length of her spine, and she is wracked with pain as though it were a zipper and someone was squeezing it, pushing into her organs "as if they were butter or dough."
Working as a radio talk-show host and living in
rural small town Midden, Minnesota, Teresa's mantra is that we are all "modern pioneers."
Her attitude is "to work hard, do good and always be incredible." But the realization that it really is cancer crackles starkly through her family, utterly devastating this woman who loves life.
Bruce, her life partner, finds it difficult to cope with the news, while Teresa tells Joshua and Claire that everything is going to be
okay because she has given them all the tools and all the love they'll need to get them through life.
It isn't long before Teresa is gone,. The three of them are left to face their sorrow and loss as they struggle with a new way of seeing the world, each of them distorted and veiled by layers of grief. Bruce wants desperately to keep his adopted family together.
His initial intention is to comfort Joshua and Claire in their pain, but the family slowly fractures and disintegrates, becoming "a leaner, sparser thing."
The ache of Teresa's death washes over Bruce in waves; he is virtually crippled with angst and even debates taking his own life. He makes only the feeblest attempts to connect to Joshua and Claire, and the announcement of his marriage to Kathy, a kindhearted neighbor and old friend of Teresa, so soon after their mother's death sends emotional shockwaves through the siblings.
Fueled by his mother’s illness and his own sense of disassociation - his version of coping
- Joshua comes loose from his already faltering moorings. He is eventually suspended from school for truancy
and becomes a small-town drug dealer, selling crystal meth and dope, ultimately getting his teenage girlfriend pregnant and subsequently getting into trouble with the law.
No matter how carefully Claire approaches her mother's death, her insecurities become more insurmountable. Claire doesn't want to be consoled; she wants one thing and one thing only – for her mother to live. At the hospital she meets Bill, a forty-something man who is going through a similar crisis with his wife, and through her sudden affair with him, she begins to question her love for David, her boyfriend.
Throughout the novel, Bruce, Claire and Joshua are faced with some momentous
choices, most significant is their inability to communicate their grief/ Although they are a close family, obviously the sharing of such intimate emotion
does not come easy for them.
Amid all the confusion and anger and self-doubt, the author presents a
remarkable and elegant story of courage and love. What begins as a
somewhat depressing treatise on death and dying ends up being a trenchant, heroic story of great courage, bravery, and resilience.