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Long shadow of the towers

September 14, 2008|David L. Ulin

ON SEPT. 10, 2001, Alissa Torres' husband, Eddie, started a job at Cantor Fitzgerald, a brokerage house in the north tower of the World Trade Center. The next morning, he and more than 2,700 others would die there.

Alissa Torres, who was seven months pregnant at the time, had to navigate both the tangled landscape of her grief and the equally fraught maze of aid and social service organizations as she tried to figure out how to reconstruct her life. In "American Widow" (Villard: 210 pp., $22), she tells the story of this process. She tells it starkly, without pity or sentimentality, in a voice that is both vulnerable and matter-of-fact.

"American Widow" is a graphic novel, or perhaps graphic memoir is more to the point. It's an interesting choice of medium, since Torres is not a cartoonist (the book is drawn by Sungyoon Choi, a New York artist whose work is spare, unmannered, in the style of Adrian Tomine).

But after a shaky start, the book really takes off. On many pages, language is kept to a minimum -- a few word balloons, a line or two of exposition -- as if to highlight the bleak uncertainty, the lack of resolution, that has come to define Torres' life.

Although "American Widow" follows a largely chronological structure, the visual nature of the form allows Torres to animate her history, letting us see Eddie, rather than merely hear about him, establishing a context for their love. This makes her eventual move toward acceptance more heartbreaking because we know exactly what she's overcome.

"What would motherhood be like without widowhood?" Torres asks late in the book, and it's a question that resonates more deeply than any other here. At the heart of "American Widow" is the notion of Sept. 11 as a personal, rather than a national or political, tragedy, which, this achingly tender work reminds us, is exactly what it was.

-- David L. Ulin

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