Suzy Rosin developed an ugly cough in the fall of 2002, was diagnosed with lung cancer early the following year and died, after three surgeries and many rounds of treatment, in June 2005. In her memoir, "If You Knew Suzy," Katherine Rosman, the younger of Suzy's two daughters, writes that she was devastated, not just about losing her mother, but about "how she died: in emotional distress and with a complete unwillingness to reflect on her life." If prolonged illness offers the opportunity to reckon with what it all means — and to say goodbye — Rosman's mother wasn't interested. Suzy fought to the end, unable to admit she was dying, even and especially to those who loved her best, among them her daughters: the author and her sister, Lizzie.
A longtime culture journalist for the Wall Street Journal, Rosman was "obsessed with what I didn't know about mom's life, and what I feared I would never understand about the way she approached her death." She wanted to use her reporting skills to write an account that was not "macabre, airbrushed or prescriptive," and true to her word, she sets the tone from Chapter 1. On the day Suzy died, "My sister Lizzie and I dug into Mom's wallet, harvested her credit cards, and went shopping," she writes. "It's what Mom would want," Lizzie told her at the time, and there's plenty of supporting evidence, including a chapter titled "She Wore Missoni to her Biopsy."
But the author's real agenda becomes clear when she opens her mother's Filofax and starts "cold-calling" numbers within. From that point on, she alternates the saga of her mother's prolonged battle for health with interviews of people from Suzy's address book: among them a hip-hop dancer, a Pilates guru, the owners of a dress shop, an oncologist, a glass collector, a golf champion and a caddy who goes on to earn an MBA.
Rosman is on to something here: Who hasn't been startled by the idea that our parents lead lives apart from us? Who isn't intrigued — if occasionally ambivalent — to discover that other people may know them as well as, or in some cases even better, than we do? Who doesn't yearn to hear new stories about the people we loved?
But at a dinner party early in the book, Rosman is seated next to a man, similarly bereaved, who questions her methods: " … you really have no way of knowing what, if anything, any of your discoveries signify," he says when he hears about her project. Rosman characterizes him as "pissed off and drunk," but from the reader's point of view, he's on to something too.
For though she relentlessly pursues each lead, for the most part this random assortment of characters — not an intimate among them — doesn't have all that much to reveal about Suzy. The owner of a local boutique confirms, "She was one of our best customers." Her toughest opponent on the golf course (the winner every time), says, "We weren't close friends, but she was always nice to me." How not to begin wondering why this supporting cast gets so much stage time? Impressive as some of them turn out to be, Rosman's profiles seem beside the point: What difference does it make that Romana the Pilates guru studied with Balanchine? That Mary the golf caddy went to Harvard says more about Mary's strength of character than Suzy's; and though Carl, the glass collector, sobs when he tells Katie that he lit a candle when Suzy died, the episode reflects on him rather than on their relationship, which was mostly business and mostly conducted online. Meanwhile, where are Suzy's real friends? The author tells us early on she didn't have many. She was "socially adrift and lonesome."
"I love narratives," writes Rosman, "the orderly way they can place random events into a compelling context." But the context here is mystifying, the treatment of Suzy's life and history somehow cursory as compared with the depth and texture of some of this peripheral reportage. Her investigative skills notwithstanding, the author's effort to put it all together feels forced, a desperate attempt to reveal her mother as a woman of substance by association. To be sure, there's plenty of testimony that Suzy was beautiful, a great dancer, a dedicated exercise teacher, even a lover of the outdoors. That she adored her daughters is indisputable. That she was energetic and focused — perhaps to a fault — is also clear. But she finally emerges as a person prone to unexamined depression and rage, and though talented and disciplined, desperate for attention and control. If this were a deliberate portrait, it would be one thing. But the Suzy Rosin in these pages turns out to be less interesting than the members of the chorus, some of whom frankly admit that they hadn't seen or spoken to her in decades. Together and separately, they just don't have much light to shed.
Subtitled "A Mother, a Daughter, A Reporter's Notebook," the book only partially fulfills its billing. Rosman has indeed done much journalistic digging. And she is admirably forthcoming about her own psychology; her resentments, loyalties and loves. But whether out of deference to surviving family members — whom she appears for the most part to have politely left out of the mix — or because she simply got carried away, her strategy backfired. Mystery solved, but the investigation falls short and the tribute falls flat. The reader's conclusion, regardless of the author's intent, is that Suzy Rosin, determined to prove herself in her own eyes, died before she had the chance.
Lenney is the author of "Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir." She teaches in the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC.