by Carole Radziwill
“He was handsome and serious, bent over scripts in a hotel room, and then he stood and reached for my hand.”
I know what you’re thinking.
Why would you want to read a book about death? And not just about death, but about the painful losses of both a soulmate and of a best friend?
Sometimes books are difficult to read. The subject matter is too tricky and makes you have too many *feels*. We avoid them out of pure instinct, not willing to lose ourselves in a story that doesn’t have a happy ending. But sometimes reading those books can help you appreciate the things and people you have in your life, and have empathy and understanding in areas you never considered before. All books are written to help you grow, but it is up to you to find which way you will flourish.
Carole Radziwill is best known in this day and age as a Real Housewife of New York. That’s certainly how I knew her before I picked up this book. I’d heard that she was married to someone famous or special, won a few awards, but I was sure it was all nothing of consequence. I mean really, why would a woman with any real accomplishments or quite frankly, substance, subject herself to being a Real Housewife?
Real Housewives are my guilty pleasure(s), and I watch them religiously. I curl up with my Ben & Jerry’s (Mint Cookie), a soft blanket, and lose myself in the ridiculous and entertaining lives of women from all over the world who are so over the top that you just cannot take them seriously. They are fun because they are so insane – extravagant parties, mind-blowing closets, wild vacations. It’s just not real life, no matter what it says in the title. Carole is a Housewife in New York, but during her first few seasons on the show, she wasn’t technically a housewife to anyone. Instead, the audience followed her path as an author, laughed at her witty remarks about the other ladies, and smirked right along with her as she found humor in the ostentatious lifestyles portrayed on the show. Funnily enough, if any of the women could be living a gilded and sensational lifestyle, it could be Carole.
In addition to being a Housewife and an author of several books, including The Widow’s Guide to Sex and Dating (a novel that follows one woman’s path of trying to make lemonade out of lemons in a frankly told tale of fiction), Carole is a Peabody and 3x Emmy award winning journalist… and a real life princess.
Yes, a princess.
What Remains is the story of Carole’s life, a series of life events that begin by traveling through her non-traditional and adventurous childhood into her trek to New York as an adult to begin a career as an on-the-scene journalist. She saw the world during some of it’s worst times and in some of it’s worst ways, and helped produce amazing and awe inspiring pieces of news. During this point of her career, she met her prince, Anthony Radziwill, son of Jacqueline Kennedy’s younger sister and a Polish prince.
“By this measure, we weren’t ordinary. My father worked as a cook. I was my mother who dressed up to go to work in the city, my mother who got a college degree. Her mother, Grandma Binder, came to live with us when I was sic, after she retired from the cafeteria at New York Telephone & C., and was put in charge of a loose arrangement. My parents popped in at odd hours, around various jobs and my mother’s school. Grandma tried to impose a sort of structure, but she was no match for five slippery grandkids, and we ran as unchecked as the dandelions and black-eyed Susan that grew wild in our backyard. In a sense it was a life every kid dreams about – unruly, wild, unhampered. We had a baseball diamond worn into the side yard, where you could always find a game. We ran through the woods that edged our backyard at all hours of the day and into the night. We were dressed and fed and pointed toward school and the rest was more or less up to us.”
Carole takes us through her time at ABC, starting as an intern in the basement where she worked on transcription and various other paperwork. She cleaned, sorted office supplies, made infinite labels, and did everything in her power to make the producers as happy as possible, with an almost obsessive approach. She is ambitious and jumps at a chance to get on location, working with the famous Peter Jennings, as a production assistant. It is here that she meets what will become her soul mate, Anthony.
Anthony is subsequently diagnosed with cancer in the time leading up to their wedding and consequentially, their entire five year marriage is centered around his debilitating and life-sucking disease. Carole’s attempts to combat cancer with all of her skills as a journalist (copious notes, meticulously organized appointments, vats of information) is at times difficult to understand, but it truly appears to be the only way she is able to get herself – and her husband – through the ordeal.
“We create narratives for people, because they are simpler than the complexities of real lives. Everyone wants a good story, with a prince and a princess and a villain. When narratives change, it’s unsettling, because whether or not they’re our own, they help to define us, and we don’t want to let go of them. In my own narrative my husband was brave and I was selfless, the two of us dancing a tragic dance of love. Cancer was our villain. It wasn’t so simple, of course, but this was our story.
We all picked roles at the beginning. His mother picked one; Anthony picked on. I was the good wife. This was my thing. I was going to do this, handle it. Leave it to me. At first, I was emboldened with the idea that I could, that if I managed it and researched it, I could direct it. And by the time I realized it wasn’t the role I wanted to have, it was too late. I was too afraid of disappointing them. Hadn’t they trusted me, hadn’t they said how courageous I was? Didn’t I know all the medical words, the latest clinical studies, and where to find an extra blanket in the supply closet?”
During her marriage to Anthony she meets and falls head over heels into best-friend-dom with Carolyn Bessette, future wife of Anthony’s cousin, the strikingly handsome John Kennedy Jr. Carolyn is a wispy blonde with a quirky sense of humor and a shy smile. The friendship between the two women is birthed on one striking similarity – they are both commoners who are married/marrying into royalty. John and Anthony grew up as brothers, one the son of a prince and the other an offspring of America’s Camelot. The resulting tales revolving around their relationship as a foursome is so fun and heartwarming to read. Carole finds solace in her relationship with Carolyn, and she finds someone who is completely on her side and there for her as she goes through the pain of watching her husband as he wilts away before her very eyes. One thing about this book is that it really humanizes Carolyn Bessette. I have read multiple things about her that were not flattering; the general public was unfortunately not pleased with an outsider coming in and winning the heart of America’s Prince and handsome bachelor, John Jr. Carole paints a very different picture of Carolyn than what is available to read elsewhere and the insight is so very warm and sweet. Everyone has seen the photos of John Jr. and Carolyn coming out of the chapel, his gentle mouth pressed to her soft hand in a gesture of pure love. Reading about that day from the perspective of her best friend was like peeking into a slice of something very private and secret.
“We are running late to chapel, because John can’t find his shirt and Effie takes the Jeep back to the cottages to look for it. By the time we get to the church, the sun is setting and it’s dark inside. There is no electricity, so Effie collects candles for light. The chapel is shabby, but the candles make it look elegant. There is a steady whine of mosquitos outside, and we pick our way carefully through little piles of pig muck to get to the church. Somewhere along the way the flowers got lost, so Effie gathers fresh bunches of wildflowers for the flower girls. It is a warm evening and we leave the door of the chapel open to catch a breeze. Father Charles takes his place at the altar, wearing a white deacon’s stole. He reads from the Gospel, by flashlight. He speaks of the love that John and Carolyn share and how this small private ceremony reflects the open space they have created for themselves and their family. We take open-topped Jeeps back to the inn for the reception. It starts to rain, and we laugh as we get soaked.”
John and Carolyn are due to meet with Anthony and Carole for a long weekend to spend some of Anthony’s final days wrapped up in friendship at their home on the beach together. Everyone knows that the end is nearer than they would like, and they just want to be together, creating memories that will be left behind for those who so desperately need them. Instead, tragedy strikes in a cruel twist and John and Carolyn’s plane goes down during the middle of the night on the way to their meeting place, killing all passengers on board. Carole is the one who has to make the calls to the family, letting the know that John and Carolyn are gone. Just three weeks later, she has to bury her husband.
“We are in the kitchen not talking. Anthony and I are not looking at each other. It makes me sick, in fact, to look at someone who knows. I am horrible. I am thinking, It was supposed to be you. The phone rings constantly. I call her cell phone to hear her voice. “Hi, it’s Carolyn, leave a message.” Beep. She can’t be gone. Not now. This is not, cannot be, happening. And then I call again, and again. Talking and hanging up and then calling back. “Hi, it’s Carolyn, leave a message.” Beep. I have a vague sense of slipping. Of time closing in. Of everything I have vanishing – like a fire sweeping through a house, losing everything. I have a sense of having nothing left of her at all.”
What Remains is an honest and calculated account of Carole’s life. I found it rather telling that the first half of the book, which is centered around her childhood and career at ABC is very full of life and overflowing with random memories and vivacious tales. After she meets Anthony, the writing style becomes very to the point, documenting doctor appointments and not elaborating on a lot of things. I’m sure it was a difficult thing to revisit, no matter how much time has passed. I was thankful to have read this book as it gave me a lot of insight into how others may deal with grief, and it was a beautiful story about a girl who grew up to follow her dreams and to fall in love, in sickness and in health.
At times, Carole’s recounting of her days with Anthony may sound cold, but on reflection I truly believe that having a very structured and compartmentalized way of dealing with their life, his medical issues, and her emotions was the only way she was able to get through the pain and be strong. How do you deal with watching the person you love fade away, right before your eyes, before you’ve even truly begun to have a life together? What is the right way to deal with those feelings? We can never know unless we are personally in that position.
“I crawl back into bed with him. My head is resting on his chest, and I am listening to heart. His breathing is shallow, but I can hear it. His heartbeat is strong. Then, as the house pass, it beats fainter. Slower, like a song fading out. It beats and then I count and it beats again. Friends and nurses come and go. An entire day passes. The clock on the wall says 7 p.m. when Dr. Ruggierio taps my shoulder. I have forgotten there are people in the room. “Carole,” he says softly. “I’m sorry.” But I can still hear his heartbeat, so I wave him off. “Don’t touch me.” He apologizes and sits down. I listen to Anthony’s heartbeat until it is so faint I can barely hear it and then it’s gone. I don’t know who is in the room, I can’t look. I can’t look at Anthony. I don’t move. It is quiet, and I’m lying next to him, tears streaming down my face, and that’s how they know his heart has stopped.”
I highly recommend What Remains, and I promise it is not as depressing as it sounds. It’s a love story, ripe with loyalty and grace. I’ve always held a bit of a fascination with the Kennedy family and reading about how real and down to earth John Jr. and Carolyn were, written by someone who loved and knew them deeply; it was really wonderful. They sounded like amazing friends, and it is a shame that their lives were cut so soon, doubly a shame that Carole had to lose the three most important people in her life in the matter of a month. But how lucky she was to have them, even for a little while. It makes you really take a moment and be thankful for the time you have with the people you love, because tomorrow is never guaranteed.
I give this book 4.5 out of 5 stars, and I hope you enjoy it and it’s raw telling of fate, friendship, and timeless love.