katie olson

Soup, sonnets, and sickness

Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship
By Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo
318 pages

This book addresses two things I don’t know much about: cancer and poetry. 

Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship (Milkweed Editions) is a book of letters written between a Yale theater professor, Sarah Ruhl, and her student, Max Ritvo, who is in remission from childhood cancer. Over the course of the book, the letters vary in length and depth and Ritvo’s cancer returns, even as he graduates from Yale and receives an MFA from Columbia University. The two share poems, soup, laughs, and challenges throughout. 

The one thought that kept coming back to me while reading was the fact that neither writer is deeply religious or subscribes to one religion. Ruhl was raised in a Catholic family, declared herself an atheist in her teen years, and spends many letters talking about spirituality, reincarnation, and other aspects of Buddhism. Ritvo discusses religious themes in his writing but, in the end, doesn’t believe in an afterlife. At one point, Ritvo writes: “Study, as you’ve taught me, is secular worship.”

Juxtaposed with Ritvo’s illness, I found his spiritual exploration throughout the book interesting. When patients are in the grips of such a terminal disease, many often turn to God or some other higher power for comfort, courage, and spiritual sustenance. For some reason, I found Ritvo’s disregard for a god and the divine in the face of death extremely brave. 

And his bravery doesn’t end there—through countless medical trials, rounds of chemotherapy, and scans with bad news, Ritvo’s writing only becomes increasingly prolific, and his discussions with Ruhl grow in depth and breadth. Ritvo died at the young age of 25, and I found that some passages flew straight over my head due to my lack of understanding of classic literature and poetry. 

Still, it is easy to sense the love that the two writers have for each other. Repeatedly, Ruhl refers to Ritvo as her teacher, and Ritvo signs his letters with I love yous that don’t seem at all superficial or trite. Ruhl visits Ritvo as he receives treatment in Los Angeles, sends him a number of books, gives a blessing at his wedding, and reads his poetry to audiences when he is too weak to do it himself. The way the two care for each other—emotionally, intellectually, socially—is evident within the pages. 

When I finished the book, I found myself thinking about how I would even approach publishing a book of letters between myself and another person with a terminal illness. When the two decide that publishing this book is a project worth pursuing, Ritvo thinks the 20 best letters should be chosen while Ruhl opts for a chronological approach. In the book’s final pages, Ruhl notes that she thought Ritvo wanted to choose the best letters because he didn’t like what was waiting for him when the letters ceased—his death. 

A year after Ritvo’s death, Ruhl visits a Tibetan monk who recites a traditional one-year chant for Ritvo. After the chant, the monk says this: 

“It is very sad to die young, to die early. On the other hand, when you wake up from a dream, it doesn’t matter how long the dream was. The important thing is that you wake up. You never remember how long the dream was.”

Read other reviews of Letters from Max
Cuddling the skeleton — Slate
Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship — Publisher’s Weekly

Purchase it from your local bookstore! 
Cellar Door Books
Elliott Bay Book Company
Books Are Magic
Skylight Books

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