A wise, lyrical memoir about the power of literature to help us read our own lives—and see clearly the people we love most.
Katharine Smyth was a student at Oxford when she first read Virginia Woolf’s modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse in the comfort of an English sitting room, and in the companionable silence she shared with her father. After his death—a calamity that claimed her favorite person—she returned to that beloved novel as a way of wrestling with his memory and understanding her own grief.
Smyth’s story moves between the New England of her childhood and Woolf’s Cornish shores and Bloomsbury squares, exploring universal questions about family, loss, and homecoming. Through her inventive, highly personal reading of To the Lighthouse, and her artful adaptation of its groundbreaking structure, Smyth guides us toward a new vision of Woolf’s most demanding and rewarding novel—and crafts an elegant reminder of literature’s ability to clarify and console.
Braiding memoir, literary criticism, and biography, All the Lives We Ever Lived is a wholly original debut: a love letter from a daughter to her father, and from a reader to her most cherished author.
About the Author
Katharine Smyth is a graduate of Brown University. She has worked for The Paris Review and taught at Columbia University, where she received her MFA in nonfiction. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Nylon: "6 Great Books to Read This January" Town & Country: "The Best New Books to Read This January"
Praise for All the Lives We Ever Lived:
"Smyth's memoir is most absorbing when it is absorbed in her own life...her exploration of grown-up love, the kind that accounts for who the loved one actually is, not who you want him or her to be, gains power and grace as her story unfolds. I suspect her book could itself become solace for people nagicating their way through the complexities of grief for their fallen idols. And they will be lucky to have it." — Radhika Jones, New York Times Book Review
"This is a transcendent book, not a simple meditation on one woman’s loss, but a reflection on all of our losses, on loss itself, on how to remember and commemorate our dead." — Washington Post
"Beautifully written...a gift to readers drawn to big questions about time, memory, mortality, love and grief... you'd be hard put to find a more moving appreciation of Woolf's work." — Heller McAlpin, Wall Street Journal
"This searching memoir pays homage to To the Lighthouse, while recounting the author’s fraught relationship with her beloved father, a vibrant figure afflicted with alcoholism and cancer.... evocative and incisive." — The New Yorker
"Blending analysis of a deeply literary novel with a personal story... gently entwining observations from Woolf's classic with her own layered experience. Smyth tells us of her loe for her father, his profound alcoholism and hte unpredictable course of the cancer that ultimately claimed his life." — TIME
"Brilliant... All the Lives is a memoir, yes, but also part biography, part lit crit, part adulation — the story of the emotional turmoil of her father’s alcoholism, cancer diagnosis, and eventual death, organized as a paean to a British novel written in the 1920s... Smyth reaffirms the value of novels as existential guideposts.... beautiful." — Vulture
"This gorgeous, moving book gracefully moves between memoir and literary criticism.... Smyth’s writing possesses a unique ability to wend its way into your head, traveling into all the darkest corners of your mind, triggering thoughts on love and loss and family and memory you hadn’t known were lurking; it’s a profound experience, reading this book—one not to be missed." — Nylon
"Smyth is an elegant writer and she explores her deep, complicated love for her fther in lyrical yet restrained prose." — Literary Review (UK)
“A conceptually ambitious and assured debut, successfully bridging memoir and literary criticism…. A work of incisive observation and analysis, exquisite writing, and an attempt to determine if there is 'any revelation that could lessen loss, that could help to make the fact of death okay.'” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“All The Lives We Ever Lived is a lyrical memoir about Katharine Smyth's connection to Virginia Woolf's writing, and the power of literature in our darkest times.” —Bustle
“I loved All the Lives We Ever Lived: its structural inventiveness, its fluid and lyrically beautiful writing—some lines made me gasp—and its often astonishing wisdom. But above all, this is a smart, moving portrait of a family in crisis; Smyth weaves literary criticism and biography into nearly every page, but she never strays from the deepest concerns of the human heart.” —Jamie Quatro, author of Fire Sermon and I Want to Show You More
“All the Lives We Ever Lived is a work of vivid intelligence—a sharp love letter to the reading and relationships that shape us, and an ingenious reply to the questions Woolf asked her readers to answer for themselves.” —Nell Stevens, author of Bleaker House and The Victorian and the Romantic
“Modern American memoir doesn't get better—or more inventive—than this. By weaving the story of her father's death with a meditation on Virginia Woolf's great novel, Katharine Smyth has written a book that is both fiercely moving and full of bristling intelligence. All the Lives We Ever Lived isn't just a literary tour de force; it's an enlarging reminder of the evanescence of our lives. Smyth has twinned her sensibility with Woolf's to extraordinary effect. A wonderful debut.” —Darcy Frey, author of The Last Shot
“A stunningly well-written, exquisitely intelligent and moving book, which deepens with each turn of the screw.” —Phillip Lopate, author of A Mother's Tale
“In her brilliant debut, Katharine Smyth has done the impossible—invented a new form for the overworked genre of memoir, weaving Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse into her personal story as she absorbs the meaning of her beloved father’s long illness and early death. Her prose is luxuriant and supple, but never sentimental, and her piercing insights into the dynamics of the nuclear family often profound.” —Michael Scammell, author of Koestler and Solzhenitsyn
“In channeling her experience of loss through her lifelong reading of Virginia Woolf, Smyth upends the rules of a genre and delivers a book at once deeply intellectual and deeply felt, heartbreaking, funny, illuminating, and truly new.” —Lea Carpenter, author of Eleven Days and Red, White, Blue
“Losing then finding herself in To the Lighthouse, Katharine Smyth bestows time travel between Virginia Woolf's memory and her own, reminding us that a book can open the heart.” —Honor Moore, author of The Bishop's Daughter
“In this remarkable memoir of familial love, illness, and grief, Katharine Smyth seamlessly braids her story around that of her literary idol, Virginia Woolf, and around that writer's most enduring characters. All the Lives We Ever Lived is enlightening and absolutely original, with writing that is gentle, elegant, and true.” —Marcia DeSanctis, author of100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go