Visiting writer Leslie Pietrzyk gave a reading filled with honesty and humor in Doty Recital Hall on Thursday Feb. 25. Pietrzyk read the chapter “A Quiz” from her latest novel This Angel on My Chest. Author of Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day, Pietrzyk is an experienced novelist full of enriching, captivating stories. This Angel on My Chest, however, was especially enthralling, holding the audience’s attention despite its melancholic content.
Winner of the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, This Angel on My Chest is inspired by the death of Pietrzyk’s first husband Rob, consisting of a series of short stories about widows experiencing grief and loss in different ways. After reading the book myself, I’m glad that Pietrzyk chose to read “A Quiz” because it is one of the lighter stories in the book—if that’s even possible in a novel about dealing with grief—and it takes on a more sarcastic, cynical look at losing a spouse.
“A Quiz” goes through seven different scenarios that a widow encounters, presenting the the reader with four choices about how the widow will react to each situation. The humor comes from the fact that the answer is always “D,” with the widow deadpanning to the person she is with in each situation with the line, “My husband died six months ago of a brain aneurism and he was only 42.”
What makes this humorous—definitely a darker form of humor—is how self-aware and conscious the narrator is of the fact that she is making people uncomfortable with her startling statements. Hearing Pietrzyk read this all aloud somehow only made the chapter funnier. As she read line after line, her sardonic attitude line brought the widow on the page alive and one could tell that Pietrzyk was speaking from experience.
Although This Angel on My Chest is fictional, Pietrzyk admitted that some of the situations in the novel come from experiences she faced after losing her husband. Interestingly enough, however, is that most of the stories in this book were written 14 years after his death. The only story in the novel that Pietrzyk wrote in the throes of grief was “10 Things,” which she noted as an outlier in the book.
My favorite aspect of this This Angel on My Chest was the blur between fiction and nonfiction. All of the stories are different, but each has a diverse tone and such intense details that I originally mistook the book for nonfiction.
During the talkback after the reading, Pietrzyk confessed that she knew it wouldn’t be easy to tell some of the stories because of how her friends and family might receive it, but she encouraged everyone there that if there is a story you feel the need to tell, then you should tell it, even if it might upset others.
Each story from This Angel on My Chest varies stylistically—there’s a quiz, a list, a YouTube video and even a lecture. With this novel, Pietrzyk took a unique spin on the frequently told stories of grief and loss. Pietrzyk has mastered her craft and developed an incredible series of stories that come together to form a must-read work.
I highly recommend reading This Angel on My Chest. Sure, it has some somber moments, but the humor behind many of the stories keeps it from becoming too heavy and depressing. I think that waiting 14 years to write these stories is how Pietrzyk was able to add the comedic undercurrents, as she is no longer in the same anguish that she was over a decade ago.
With midterms approaching, the semester is hectic and it’s hard to find time to read for pleasure. But with spring break nearing, it’s the perfect time to pick up This Angel on My Chest and unwind with a great and uniquely clever read.