Tiffanie DeBartolo’s ‘Sorrow’ gifts pain a quiet beauty

Photo of Sorrow by Tiffanie Debartolo
Woodhall Press/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

It is a bold literary move for a female author to write a novel with a male protagonist, especially if said male protagonist has a very complex psyche. This is one of the numerous reasons that Tiffanie DeBartolo’s “Sorrow,” released Oct. 20, bears a certain distinctiveness. 

Readers are first introduced to the main character Joe Harper, who declares that he is “not a brave man.” He has recently been kicked out of a community library because he was intoxicated, and so it is evident quite quickly that he is less than well. Joe is weighed down by a deep and profound remorse, one that seems to be related to a Cal and an October — his childhood best friend and former lover, respectively. 

Joe explains that he had been in the library’s botany section, admiring the leaves of an aspen outside. That is, until he felt the tree’s eyes look at him “with what (he) was certain was disappointment.” 

The most striking element of the novel, by far, is the way in which DeBartolo employs the abstract. The plotline is peppered with a variety of artistic mediums, each uniquely informing the novel’s meaning. Joe is incredible with the guitar, but has forgone the chance to pursue his talent. Cal is also musically inclined and has built a successful career out of it. October is a performance artist, or “Artist of Life” as she likes to say, often immersed in an expressive project. And a more subdued presence throughout the story is Joe’s senior thesis on Aristotle and happiness, written when he was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. 

In other words, “Sorrow” is art that consists of art. And these components are the plotline’s driving force and the character development’s catalyst. Cal’s life as a musician, for one, is painful for Joe in that it stands for what could have been. And October’s projects, whether an exhibition or film, smooth over what’s unspoken between her and Joe.

Despite the richness of these characters, there is one specific relationship that remains underdeveloped: that of Joe and his late brother Sam. The details of Sam’s passing are eventually clear, but the same cannot be said about those of their bond. In dire moments, Joe finds himself speaking to Sam or asking for a sign that offers guidance. The way Joe looks to his older brother lends the relationship depth, but this depth is incongruent with the minimal information provided on Sam and the relationship. Because this brotherhood is relatively flat in the literary sense, some of its moments in “Sorrow” border on the cliche. 

Similarly forced are a couple points in the story that unfold in a way that is all too convenient: There is an unrealistically pleasant reunion of long-lost friends who left on bad terms, as well as an ending in which characters are exceptionally mature about an emotionally messy conflict.

Still, “Sorrow” is undeniably enjoyable — largely for its consistently candid tone. With a voice that is forward and true, DeBartolo is able to pack a punch in her words. This is reflected in a particularly blunt remark by Cal in high school, who had said to Joe that one can “never trust a man who isn’t moved by a song,” as this would mean “he’s dead inside.”

The novel is also enjoyable for the highly intricate sense of home that it crafts. The story primarily takes place in Mill Valley, California and contains a number of Bay Area references — UC Berkeley, the Hearst Greek Theatre, Sol Food restaurant, Richmond Bridge, San Rafael, to name a few. This paints an authenticity that can only come from a writer who has an intimate understanding of where they’ve chosen their story to be set and why they’ve done so.

DeBartolo fills her work to the brim with figurative threads and spiritual wisdom, but not so much that meaning becomes diluted. At one point in the novel, Joe thinks back on a day of his senior year at UC Berkeley: He is sitting with his adviser in Moses Hall and is reminded of his thesis’s conclusion, “that happiness is a consequence of choice.” “Sorrow,” with soft and bright precision, paints how Joe begins to grasp the sentiment that he himself contrived.

Kathryn Kemp covers literature. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @kathryynkemp.