Dear Zoe - By Philip Beard

Previously unpublished

My neighbor died on September 11, 2001. No, he didn’t die in one of the planes that crashed, nor in one of the twin towers that came down that day. Mr. Johnson, who was a dear, dear soul, finally lost his long brave struggle with cancer the same day that thousands of others lost their lives on a day that became known for its date.

In the shock-filled days that followed, as I stood offering condolences at the funeral home, I couldn’t help but wonder what it might be like for Mrs. Johnson and her family to have to share their personal grief with the larger, media-soaked tragedy the rest of the world was so consumed with.

Because I miss Mr. Johnson but can’t lay claim to the depth of grief felt by his closest friends and family members, I haven’t yet been privy to what it must have been like.

Then along comes Philip Beard’s Dear Zoe, a story that is the letter of 15 year old Tess DeNunzio to her little sister Zoe. Zoe, like Mr. Johnson, died on September 11, 2001. But again, she did not die in the media-covered events of the day. She died in a personal tragedy, victim of a car crash while in the care of her sister Tess.

Consumed in grief, and bitter about not only having to share that grief in the larger world events, but also in having to immediately explain how her sister died (ie, not in the aircraft related events), Tess attempts to come to terms with her grief and her guilt by writing to her sister.

She tells her sister about the effect of her loss on the family, how she divides herself from her mother and other siblings, moves in with her dad, and finds herself in an adolescent romance.

The tale itself is well told, with many poignant moments that ring true. It is also fittingly brief at just under 200 pages. The reader gets to follow Tess through a coming of age situation that is ripe with grief and guilt. Beard has done an excellent job in bringing home the pain as well as the complexity of the loss on Tess and her family.

Interestingly enough, Beard was hours away from pushing the button on a self-publishing deal for this novel. However, at the last minute he was won over by the combined efforts of a bookseller, a sales rep, a publisher and an agent, and brought the book to Viking.

Good thing too. Because the book is with a major publisher, more people will have the opportunity to discover this gem. Dear Zoe, is written in a convincing voice and tells a story that sticks with the reader long after finishing it.

The novel also ends on a positive note, as Tess is able to begin to come to grips with her world. Beard summarizes this nicely in her voice with ideas such as it’s easier to let yourself think about what you’ve lost rather than what’s left.

And on that note, I think about the legacy that Mr. Johnson left in my own life. My wife Francine and I have many happy memories of his smile, his good nature and the ultimate way that he defined what it was to be the perfect neighbor. I can only imagine the wondrous things he left to those dearest to his heart.


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