Review by David Starkey
Those who can remember the grief they felt for young, terminally ill Johnny Gunther when they first read John Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud, will be somewhat prepared for the experience of reading Amy Bloom’s In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss. But “somewhat prepared” is not the same as actively experiencing the emotional trauma of an impending death, and that’s what Bloom offers us in this wrenching, heartbreaker of a book.
The story itself is fairly, if tragically, simple. After several years of gradually diminishing cognition, Bloom’s husband, the architect Brian Ameche (son of football great Alan Ameche), takes the Mini-Mental State Examination and finds he has mild dementia, likely caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Brian knows what’s ahead and rather than gradually and painfully decline, he decides to end his life.
Most of the memoir’s complications ensue from the fact that even in “right-to-die” states, the patient has to overcome so many hurdles and be so close to death that, realistically, very few people are ever able exercise their rights. Brian leaves the details to Amy, and she diligently researches the many unsatisfying alternatives to physician-assisted death. Ultimately, she discovers Dignitas, a Swiss-based “self-determination, autonomy and dignity group” that makes possible “patient accompanied” deaths.
Initially, Brian’s physicians are of little help in getting him to Switzerland, but Amy persists, and the spine of the book, and its most moving element, is Bloom’s travel journal, begun on a Sunday (just before the pandemic), when the couple flies from New York to Zurich. The journal recounts the flight and the following four days until Brian swallows a lethal dose of sodium phenobarbital and dies peacefully with his wife holding his hand. Before that moment, though, time passes both tediously and painfully: “We take walks—I photograph the intersections so we won’t get lost, and every time I hold up my phone, Brian walks on and says, We’ll be fine. We chat listlessly…. We can’t even play gin. We can’t read.”
Comparisons might be made between In Love and Joan Didion’s elegy for her husband The Year of Magical Thinking, but as moving as Didion’s book is, its focus is on the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death, and one is always aware of the highly wrought language she uses to tell her story. While Bloom—a past nominee for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award—is a fine writer herself, In Love reads more like the notes, carefully crafted to be sure, written in the immediate aftermath of her loss.
Similar to a person facing their own mortality, In Love eschews the inessential. It is the sort of book—like Death Be Not Proud, or Ann Hood’s Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, or Cory Taylor’s Dying: A Memoir—that is so gripping, and so honest about our greatest societal bête noire, that while you are reading it, everything but the narrative melts away to insignificance.