Glitterati no match for ‘This Lovely Life’

May I make a suggestion for a great Chanukah or Christmas gift? Or recommend a selection for your book club? Or offer a proposal for making time disappear during your next long and painful airline experience?

“This Lovely Life,” by Vicki Forman.

I read two-thirds of it during a fancy and fabulous dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel two weeks ago, came home and finished it that night, read it again the next day, and now it’s on the nightstand next to my bed, where I keep reading passages from it.

I was at the annual Literary Awards Festival for PEN Center USA. It was a beautiful affair produced by Jamie Wolf and packed with famous people and designer gowns and party favor bags that weighed a ton. I was sitting between a very charming television writer named Dawn Prestwich and a very thin event organizer named (this can only happen in L.A.) Cat. By the time the speeches began, I had already secured a promise from Ms. Prestwich to come talk to my students at USC, answered Cat’s questions about how I was related to all the other Nahais in Los Angeles and skimmed the souvenir book a couple of times. When the obligatory welcome speech began, I started to dig through the party bag in search of a distraction.

There were books. And more books. And pamphlets about books — which is all very good and exciting for someone like me, but I didn’t want to look like the crazy lady at the ball who sits alone and reads while everyone else is having a glorious time, so I put the books back in the bag and tried to listen to the speech. The speaker may have been nominated for an Academy Award or two, but he’s not what one might call a Great Communicator. So I sneaked another look at the books, glanced at the synopsis on the back of “This Lovely Life” and decided I didn’t have the stomach for it. I looked through the souvenir book a third time and discovered that “This Lovely Life” was the evening’s winner of the Creative Nonfiction award. That could mean it’s a great book, I thought, or it could mean (no offense to the judges, but they do have to read a great many books) it’s short and easy to get through. I tried to laugh at the speaker’s jokes. I read the first line of “This Lovely Life.”

“I learned about grief during this time,” Vicki Forman writes in the opening sentence of this startling memoir about raising a child with catastrophic disabilities.

Who needs this? you ask. But read that line again and you’ll find there’s something intensely seductive about those words, the strength with which they’re uttered, the hair-raising honesty of the voice that speaks them. Eight years ago, Vicki Forman was a young mother with a loving husband and a healthy 3-year-old. She was pregnant with twins — a boy and a girl. They were born too soon, each weighing barely more than a pound. The parents assumed the babies would be born dead or die soon after birth. They didn’t.

“This Lovely Life” is as much a page turner as any Dan Brown novel, and a whole lot smarter as well; as much a tear-jerker as any “Kite Runner,” but a thousand times more sophisticated; as much a study of the American psyche, the American family, American society, as “The Corrections” or “Freedom” or any other of Jonathan Franzen’s door stoppers. What it isn’t —really, truly, isn’t — is depressing. There are more twists and turns here than in any mystery or thriller, more cliffhangers than in any Hollywood production, but there’s none of the canned “inspiration” of the kinds of stories you read in People, none of the “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger / make lemonade out of lemons / it’s not a disability, it’s a challenge” bravado that we seem to admire so much in this country. There’s just the constant, unwavering beat of a mother’s brave but broken heart, the astonishing candor of a parent who doesn’t fear the judgment of others because she knows what she has done and why. There’s the terrible but indispensable realization that the only way to overcome life’s cruelty is to accept it, that the greatest gift a parent can give a child is to embrace him as much because of, as in spite of, his shortcomings.

I can’t tell you much about what happened during the rest of the PEN event that night. I remember David Kipen was as charming as ever when he spoke about his new bookstore — Libros Schmibros — in Boyle Heights, that M.G. Lord does a superb “Lucille Ball, Science Writer” cameo, that Vicki Forman looks like a pixie with a kind heart and a fierce resolve. And I can tell you that reading “This Lovely Life” will be a transformative experience for anyone smart enough to pick it up, even if she does end up looking like the crazy lady at the ball.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.