On a November day in 2007, Bard Italian studies professor Joseph Luzzi woke up a husband and father-to-be and went to bed a widower and single parent. Luzzi's breathtaking memoir In a Dark Wood opens with a security guard interrupting his class with news that a van has crashed into the Jeep of his eight-months-pregnant wife, Katherine. Within hours, Katherine gives birth to their daughter, Isabel, via emergency C-section at Vassar Brothers Hospital, and dies. Isabel's prospects are dicey, but miraculously, she survives. At this writing, she is a thriving, spirited seven-year-old, and Luzzi is happily remarried to renowned violinist/violist Helena Baillie, who has gamely stepped in to co-parent Isabel. In one of the book's most moving scenes, Luzzi and tiny Isabel attend Helena's performance of a Bach piece the composer wrote for his deceased wife; the music inspires an epiphany Luzzi employs as the memoir's epigram: Every grief story is a love story.
The above may seem rife with spoilers, but In a Dark Wood isn't so much about where Luzzi ends up as how he gets there, and therein lies the pull of this story of deliverance from unimaginable pain to restored happiness through art. As the title suggests, Luzzi turns to Dante Alighieri's 's 14th-century epic poem The Divine Comedy, a work he teaches, to help make sense of his loss and its aftermath, grief. That grief reverberates from the accident through subsequent challenges: Luzzi fitfully seeks fulfilling female companionship, his immigrant Calabrian mother parents Isabel without much input from him; incredibly, he endures a lawsuit brought against Katherine's estate (i.e. Luzzi) by the man who killed her. Dante guides him through these dark woods.
You say you've not read The Divine Comedy, one of the great works of world literature, an epic poem written in painful, bereaved exile, an allegorical trip through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise that gives shape to humankind's deepest spiritual longings? It doesn't matter. Luzzi writes with the economy and flair of a novelist. He adroitly boils down the essentials of The Divine Comedy while also giving fascinating historical context. We travel deep inside the emotional process by which the poet used his imagination to construct a narrative to deal with grief over his beloved, deceased Beatrice, and the loss of his dear homeland of Florence, to which he could never return for political reasons.
But In a Dark Wood is not Cliff's Notes for Dante. Luzzi makes it all personal when he twines his historical analysis of The Divine Comedy with his own dark emotional terrain, detailing how the work offers him, like Dante, a map out of Hell. The main difference, of course, is that Dante never made it back to Florence; Luzzi, however, walks in the sun again.
Which is not to say it's an easy ride. It is not. And Luzzi doesn't just sit in a garret with his Dante; over the course of several years, he engages with friends, lovers (he's quite candid about the romantic entanglements of a widower), his vibrant family (they really do jump off the page, those Calabrians), and the ghost of his beloved Katherine. She lives in his memories, and in the body of their child, whose father returns from the shrouded sea of grief in a vessel of literature, piloted by a 14th-century poet, and reclaims her.