Reviewed by Melissa Gaiti
Where does a person turn when facing stress, grief, or pain? In Letters from Max, we witness connection through writings between Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo as their relationship evolves from professor and student to friends. Just as the title suggests, letters are used to tell the narrative and take readers through the journey. Ritvo’s cancer is revealed in the introduction, adding urgency to their correspondence. The exchange of poems and thoughts brings the reader into these private moments and conversations about topics of spirituality and the afterlife. By the end, the reader has witnessed how this friendship was built upon Sarah’s as she recollects her time with Max.
The majority of this book takes the form of letter correspondence, with the exchange of poems as well. The letters elevate the personal and reveal how comfortable Sarah and Max become with one another. Their budding friendship extends beyond the mentor or peer relationship that began with their writing lives. Both of their writing lives are glimpsed, but their exchange of poems shows an exchange of ideas. The poems are artfully placed throughout to strengthen the characters’ relationship in the mind of the reader.
Poetry sometimes connects two letters and reveals how Sarah and Max are feeling and how their experiences have influenced them. The poems create an intimate space for the readers and for the characters themselves and offer a moment to think. It is almost like Sarah and Max are letting the reader join the conversation and think about the events of the characters’ and the reader’s own lives. The poems draw readers into these lives, despite how similar or vastly different our lives may be. The poems have strengthened the journey for their relationship, but it also gets readers to see the comfort and support pass between them.
Letters from Max shows the value of art in bringing people together and allowing them to share ideas and find comfort. Of course, Max’s cancer is ever-present, and while it is addressed, the weight of this book rests with going through Sarah’s and Max’s lives and witnessing their thoughts. The book is split into four parts, each part of which dives further into the friendship. The letters and poems are interrupted to provide context and transitions between the parts. Each part also brings a new moment in relation to Max’s cancer as letters examine serious topics, including spirituality and the afterlife. The poems and letters gain this underlying urgency and seriousness in the last two parts.
Readers who enjoy poetry and creative nonfiction will find this book’s combination a worthwhile read as. In addition, Letters from Max doesn’t shy away from dark or sensitive topics, which can be comforting as we each face our own questions regarding spirituality or mortality.
About Melissa Gaiti
Melissa Gaiti is a current graduate student at Chapman University working on earning an MFA in Creative Writing. She received a BA in English with a minor in Sociology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She writes prose in fiction and creative nonfiction, which have been featured on the Life Out Loud Podcast.