Rebecca Handler's first novel is "Edie Richter is Not Alone." (Photo/Kristen Sard)
Rebecca Handler's first novel is "Edie Richter is Not Alone." (Photo/Kristen Sard)

Rebecca Handler grieved for her father by writing a novel — and swimming in the bay

Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

When Rebecca Handler’s father died from Alzheimer’s in 2013, there were, “unsurprisingly given our family, moments of hilarity,” the San Francisco writer recalls. She was in the room with her mother and her brother, Daniel, waiting to witness their loved one’s last breath and the stillness that followed. But instead, what came were false starts, as each last breath became another last breath. And then another.

Comic relief had entered that sacred space. And it wasn’t all that strange. For the Handlers, like many Jewish families, humor is an organizing principle of family life. There’s nothing quite as life-affirming as laughing together when you could be crying.

It was perhaps a given, then, that Handler’s first novel, “Edie Richter Is Not Alone,” would be about a Jewish woman whose beloved father dies of Alzheimer’s, and whose acerbic humor is threaded through her pathos.

Edie, the protagonist, is heavy-hearted over her loss when she moves with her husband from San Francisco to Perth, Australia, hoping to outrun her grief but ending up feeling isolated and adrift. More central to the story is how she deals with a heavy secret about her role in her father’s death.

The book is “inspired by” her father, Handler says, and yes, like Edie she did move to Perth not long after her dad died, and yes, she recognizes and appreciates the absurdity in circumstances where decorum is expected. (When she and her brother went to buy their dad’s cemetery plot and were quoted an “exorbitant” price, Handler told the bewildered salesman, “Our father would have wanted us to negotiate.”)

Rebecca Handler swims with a whale shark in Western Australia.
Rebecca Handler swims with a whale shark in Western Australia.

But the similarities between author and character end there, Handler said in a recent interview. Unlike Edie, she does not harbor a painful secret about her father’s death, and she did not spend her time in Australia alienating people and losing her grip on reality.

Handler, 47, who works for the grantmaking organization Pacific Foundation Services, started writing fiction while she was in Perth, where her husband had been offered a temporary job. “It sounded too good to pass up,” she said, and off they went with their two daughters, then 7 and 9, to live in the most remote city in the world. They loved it so much, they stretched it out to 3½  years, returning in 2018.

Her mother and her brother, the writer Daniel Handler of Lemony Snicket fame, both live in San Francisco as well; they grew up at Congregation Sherith Israel and Rebecca recently rejoined the shul with her own family. Daniel has been helping his younger sister promote her book, interviewing her for City Arts & Lectures, Bookshop West Portal and other venues.

It was 2005 when their father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but “his neurologist said he had been faking it for a while,” she said. “I think we’d all been in denial. It was pretty obvious something was going on.” He died eight “long and gruesome” years later. “I didn’t feel a burden was lifted, or clichés people say after someone with a long disease dies. I didn’t feel any of that. I just missed him, even the sick version of him.”

As the disease progressed, Handler thought about what his wishes might have been. “When you have someone dying of degenerative diseases, it’s really common to think about ending their life, because you think about what they would have wanted, what you want, or what’s best for your family,” she said. She took it a step further when she was outlining the book’s plot. “It struck me, what if I had [followed through] — how would I feel, and what kind of person would do that? Maybe someone who tends to act first and think later.”

Rebecca Handler shows her brother, writer Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket), who's boss.
Rebecca Handler shows her brother, writer Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket), who’s boss.

Edie keeps people at arm’s length and feels alone in the world, even while in a support group with others who share her experience. “I’m really interested in grief as a subject area,” Handler said. “It’s a really common experience, yet when you’re in it it can feel very isolating. We all go through it, but it feels so lonely.”

People find different ways to cope. For Handler, it came seven months after her father’s death when she started looking for something she could do that would take her mind to other places. “This might sound crazy,” she wrote in an email to her brother one morning, but did he want to try swimming in the San Francisco Bay? He responded immediately — yes, I was just thinking the same thing, let’s go. (The two are extremely close, and in this case apparently read each other’s minds.)

They took a class with the Dolphin Club, where they learned how to avoid hypothermia and other tips for staying alive, and then they went into the 52-degree water, starting with five minutes at first and working their way up to a half-hour.

“I found it very useful to pick up a new activity after we lost our dad,” she said during one of her online book talks. “I was creating something new for myself that didn’t remind me of my loved one. It was also a way of proving to myself that I could grow and change after a loss like that.”

The swimming is less frequent these days as she looks forward to the joint bat mitzvahs of her daughters this summer; they will be 16 and almost 14. “We missed the whole Sunday school train,” Handler said, and were looking to reconnect with a synagogue after returning from Australia. Once she learned that the senior rabbi at Sherith Israel was Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf, it sealed the deal. “Rabbi Jessica and I went to kindergarten together, and grew up together at Sunday school,” said Handler. The big day is July 31.

Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s managing editor. She can be reached at [email protected].