What does it mean to heal? To move on? To let go? Whatever it means, it is usually said and not done, and the people who talk about it the most have almost never had to do it." So Portland-based Cheryl Strayed writes in "The Love of My Life," anthologized in The Best American Essays 2003. In that essay, Strayed recounts the experience of losing her mother to cancer, recording the confusing and sometimes harrowing manifestations of grief. Though she created a masterpiece with that essay—gorgeously written and addictive in its pure, emotional pitch—Strayed was not done with her subject. She returns to it in her impressive debut novel, Torch (Houghton Mifflin, 336 pages, $24).

At the center of Torch is Teresa Rae Wood, a woman who, at 38, has already led a number of lives. After starting out as a teen mother, she escaped an abusive husband by taking her two children, Claire and Joshua, to start over in a rural Minnesota town. There she met Bruce, a local carpenter, and with him created a new life filled with love and family.

At the novel's beginning, Teresa learns that cancer has invaded her body, and she dies shortly after. The story then shifts from Teresa Rae Wood to the people she leaves behind.

Strayed unfolds the story with grace, through fluid, descriptive writing and a carefully constructed narrative that alternates between the perspectives of Teresa's survivors: Joshua, Claire and Bruce. Joshua drops out of high school and starts selling drugs; Claire leaves college and a long-term relationship; Bruce barely manages to stay alive and then, two months later, announces his engagement to a neighbor woman. Having lost the person who brought them together, the three struggle to redefine their relationships with one another.

The story is a difficult one to tell because, like death, grief often has no logic, no rules or sense. But Strayed gives her characters an unsentimental humanity that makes them accessible, even as they act in ways that surprise and disappoint. In Torch Strayed writes, as she did in her essay, knowing that when confronted with death, we will not necessarily experience healing, moving on or letting go. In the end, what emerges may be only a fragile semblance of survival.

Cheryl Strayed will read from


at Annie Bloom's Books, 7834 Capitol Highway, 246-0053, on Wednesday, March 29, at 7:30 pm. Free.