The single false note in this exuberant, moving, and endlessly fascinating book is the title: Letters from Max also includes letters from Sarah, and not only letters. Both writers contribute poems, songs, dialogues, dreams, thoughts, fears, and jokes. They engage, challenge, and support each other on any number of topics, from soup to the afterlife, Buddhism to writing, children to the nature of listening. This collection packs a tremendous emotional and intellectual punch. Ritvo’s cancer was steadily gaining on him throughout the period he and Ruhl corresponded (during which he nonetheless graduated from Yale, earned an MFA at Columbia, got married, published a chapbook and a book), and this adds great poignancy to the already moving account of a vital friendship. The depth of affection these two people felt for each other comes through clearly; it lives and breathes in their writing, and is inextricably bound up in their wide-ranging and passionate curiosity. While this collection is an intimate portrait of courage on both sides (it surely takes as much courage to lose a valued friend as it does to endure the relentless, debilitating rounds of radiation and chemo Ritvo did), it’s also a spirited writing workshop and philosophical debate. Nearly every page offers something irresistibly quotable, whether for its wisdom, its language, or its spirit: “when we ask about the afterlife, we’re conquering death,” Ritvo declares. And, “pain is just panic sitting still a moment.” Ruhl, inspired by Max to resume writing the poetry she gave up for plays, celebrates his life and work by asking “What is love, if not boundless imagination?/ What is imagination, if not boundless love?” The voices here are so warm and vital they embrace the reader as they do each other, and there’s a sad silence when you finish the book.
Letters from Max - Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo