An imaginative recreation of profound personal loss, the resulting changes wrought by unexpected responsibility as well as opportunity, all occurring during the progression from late adolescence into young adulthood, this work is centered on the death and its aftermath of the author’s parents 32 days apart, when the author was 21 years old (in 1991). With two siblings embarked on their own careers, it was Dave who took on "parenthood" of their eight-year old brother, "Toph."

The book details first, the mother’s death, then, the life that Eggers and Toph negotiate for themselves and with each other after they move from suburban Chicago to Berkeley, California, and, finally, Dave’s return visit to his hometown, wherein he seeks to exorcise some ghosts. In between these landmarks are reflections on family relationships, including that with a shadowy, alcoholic father; the launch of a satiric magazine, "Might" (a title meant to signify both power and possibility); concern for wounded friends; attempts to lead a "normal" life.

While the bare facts of Eggers’s story are unusual enough, the writing is arrestingly original--performative, conversational, brash, yet self-deprecating, funny, and often moving. It is not inaccurate, and will give a flavor of the writing style, to describe the book’s "themes" in the author’s own words (from the 21-page Acknowledgments), for example: "The Unspoken Magic Of Parental Disappearance"--the admission that this traumatic experience of loss "is accompanied by an undeniable but then of course guilt-inducing sense of mobility, of infinite possibility, having suddenly found oneself in a world with neither floor nor ceiling" (xxv); "The Brotherly Love/Weird Symbiosis Factor"; "The Knowingness About The Book’s Self-Conscious Aspect"--an acknowledgment that self-reference is "simply a device, a defense, to obscure the black, blinding, murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story" (xxvii); "The Telling The World Of Suffering As Means Of Flushing Or At Least Diluting Of Pain Aspect"; "The Putting This All Down As Tool For Stopping Time Given The Overlap With Fear Of Death Aspect."

Dave Eggers is on his way to New York with Toph as the book ends. They currently live in Brooklyn, where Eggers produces a quarterly literary journal (Timothy Mcsweeney’s Quarterly Concern, A Journal Created By Nervous People In Relative Obscurity) and a related Web site.


This book is a communicative act, a performance, an entertainment, and a powerful evocation of devotion--devotion to a flawed, now-dead parent (the mother), and devotion to and dependence on a younger brother to whom one is both parent and rough-housing older friend, and who serves as an alter-ego. It seems almost in poor taste to speak of tragedy as entertainment, and Eggers is quite conscious of exploitation associated with memoir writing, but the author’s irrepressible energy, inventiveness, decency, and, yes (to use an Eggerism), sheer talent make a disturbing, self-conscious narrative absorbing and appealing.

While one sometimes wishes for a stronger editorial hand, there are many compelling sections, particularly those that describe (often graphically) how Eggers watched, and watched over his mother while she was dying, his relationship with her while she was alive, a fierce concern to protect his brother from harm, the struggle to meet his "parental" obligations while living some semblance of a 20-something life.

There is important discussion of the need to write, to draw ["I drew a picture of her on her deathbed . . . I mean, what does that mean?" (192-193)], to narrate and exhibit, to express and share both suffering and the details of life ["It is shareware . . . Make it useful" (189)], and, by writing, to shed suffering without losing one’s self (like a snake shedding its skin). But, Eggers argues, even if we, his audience, can grasp only an outline--the snake’s shed skin--we will know there was a life there, and thus we can "celebrate," with him, its existence (182-190).

A Heartbreaking Work has much to offer for health care professionals and should resonate with young adults being educated for those fields. It should also be helpful to those who have experienced similar childhood traumas. For classroom situations where the memoir is too long to assign in its entirety, parts could be excerpted and usefully discussed.


This book won the Addison M. Metcalf Award (American Academy of Arts and Letters).


Simon & Schuster

Place Published

New York



Page Count