From one of our most perceptive and provocative voices comes a deeply researched account of the last days of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and James Salter—an arresting and wholly original meditation on mortality.
In The Violet Hour, Katie Roiphe takes an unexpected and liberating approach to the most unavoidable of subjects. She investigates the last days of six great thinkers, writers, and artists as they come to terms with the reality of approaching death, or what T. S. Eliot called “the evening hour that strives Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea.”
Roiphe draws on her own extraordinary research and access to the family, friends, and caretakers of her subjects. Here is Susan Sontag, the consummate public intellectual, who finds her commitment to rational thinking tested during her third bout with cancer. Roiphe takes us to the hospital room where, after receiving the worst possible diagnosis, seventy-six-year-old John Updike begins writing a poem. She vividly re-creates the fortnight of almost suicidal excess that culminated in Dylan Thomas’s fatal collapse at the Chelsea Hotel. She gives us a bracing portrait of Sigmund Freud fleeing Nazi-occupied Vienna only to continue in his London exile the compulsive cigar smoking that he knows will hasten his decline. And she shows us how Maurice Sendak’s beloved books for children are infused with his lifelong obsession with death, if you know where to look.
The Violet Hour is a book filled with intimate and surprising revelations. In the final acts of each of these creative geniuses are examples of courage, passion, self-delusion, pointless suffering, and superb devotion. There are also moments of sublime insight and understanding where the mind creates its own comfort. As the author writes, “If it’s nearly impossible to capture the approach of death in words, who would have the most hope of doing it?” By bringing these great writers’ final days to urgent, unsentimental life, Katie Roiphe helps us to look boldly in the face of death and be less afraid.
“A beautiful book . . . The intensity of these passages—the depth of research, the acute sensitivity for declarative moments—is deeply beguiling.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Profound, poetic and—yes—comforting.”—People
“Roiphe paints a series of revealing and intimate portraits of her subjects while pursuing her own very personal search for answers.”—USA TODAY
“Roiphe is moving and insightful about these artists’ late works… [she] proves to us that writers chase immortality the hardest of all.”—The Washington Post
“Unconventional, engaging . . . [The Violet Hour] is at once scholarly, literary, juicy—and unabashedly personal.”—Los Angeles Times
“Enveloping . . . I read it in bed, at the kitchen table, while walking down the street. . . . ‘What normal person wants to blunder into this hushed and sacred space?’ she asks. But the answer is all of us, and [Katie] Roiphe does it with grace.”—Jennifer Senior, The New York Times
“A beautiful and provocative meditation on mortality.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A tender yet penetrating look at the final days . . . Roiphe has always seemed to me a writer to envy. No matter what the occasion, she can be counted on to marry ferocity and erudition in ways that nearly always make her interesting, even when one reads in wide-eyed dissent, and her gifts are on full display in The Violet Hour. . . . The intimacy and precision of Ms. Roiphe’s accounts, which move fluidly back and forth in time, are so remarkable.”—The Wall Street Journal
“The critic who parses the artist parsing death must be every inch as intrepid as the artist himself. In The Violet Hour, Katie Roiphe delivers a . . . necessary report from ‘the deepening shades,’ as Yeats has it, rife with her hospitable authority and critical rectitude. . . . Here is a critic in supreme control of her gifts, whose gift to us is the observant vigor that refuses to flinch before the Reaper. . . . She knows that true criticism does not bother with the mollification of delicate sensibilities, only with the intellect as it roils and rollicks through language.”—William Giraldi, The New Republic
“Roiphe’s meticulously researched The Violet Hour provides a moving glimpse into the final days of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, and other great thinkers.”—Martha Stewart Living
“Roiphe’s book, which is both a feat of reporting and an act of invention, is a literary embrace.”—More
“A revelation . . . This is the best book Roiphe has written. She shows that our interest in dying is not just an interest in endings, or in final things, or in posterity. Instead, it has to do with how we get along, how families and friendship work, in short, how we live.”—The Paris Review
“Her writing is as incisive and sharp as it is ruminative, so with The Violet Hour she’s managed to make me almost giddily excited to read about death.”—Literary Hub
“Beautiful and haunting . . . Never overly sentimental, this is a poignant and elegant inquiry into mortality.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Roiphe’s book is touching and luminous, profound and somehow reassuring. Recommend it to anyone who is grieving or has experienced a death, which ultimately means all of us.”—Booklist
“Mesmerizing storytelling . . . Roiphe’s riveting profiles reveal a simple truth: each person faces death in a unique way.”—Publishers Weekly
“By combining the writer’s final moments of life with what they left on the page, Roiphe ultimately offers us something beyond the work: a glimpse of death that is startling and new, intimate and uncomfortable, and deeply, deeply human.”—BookPage
“What Roiphe discovers by closely observing and contemplating each of her subjects in their darkest hours—especially their courage and great flourishes of creativity when at their most vulnerable—surprises her, and the insights she shares are bound to affirm in readers the value and meaning of life.”—Shelf Awareness
“In this elegant and beautifully written set of elegies, Katie Roiphe looks death squarely in the face, describing how people evanesce, how others lose them, how they lose themselves, how writing is a means to negotiate for immortality. This courageous, generous, intimate book is suffused with affection, and therefore provides comfort even when its topic is the loneliness that inheres in finality.”—Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree
“Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour is ambitious and tender. Her subject is urgent and so is her prose—pressurized, curious, vibrating. Death in these pages is also an account of how gravity takes up residence in pragmatics: edits from a hospital bed, wanting a certain kind of pie, what to do with the dog. The book is not simply about facing death—imagining it, fearing it, fighting it, craving it—but a sensitive exploration of caregiving: the labor it demands, psychic and otherwise, and the deep intimacy it permits.”—Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams