SWIMMING IN A SEA OF DEATH: A SON'S MEMOIR, by David Rieff, Simon and Schuster, 180 pages, $21.

This book is immediately reminiscent of Joan Didion's wonderful "Year of Magical Thinking" book about the grief associated with the loss of her husband — not only a bestseller but a Broadway play. But Rieff falls short of capturing both his mother, the amazing Susan Sontag, prolific novelist and essayist, or the loss — even though there are wonderful passages in his memoir.

Sontag was a fascinating person, one of the few writers who always caught the attention of actors and performers and who had a rare ability to command a room. She had a "swoosh" of white hair within a mop of black hair that made her stunning to look at. She was also entirely creative and unconventional in her intellect. She was first and foremost an activist for human rights, but her personality was so assertive that she sometimes offended people.

She wrote about some very unusual subjects, the most interesting perhaps being her assessment of the nature and cultural importance of photography.

She married at age 17 to Philip Rieff, an instructor she met at the University of Chicago, a man a decade older, and they produced one son, David, the author of this book. Sontag divorced Rieff after eight years and she never married again. Later it became known that she was bisexual and she had several relationships with at least six women, including the noted photographer, Annie Liebovitz, and four men.

Her relationship with her son was apparently intellectually satisfying, but he notes in his book that they had their "difficulties." They may have been too much alike. He gives the impression that he spent numerous hours with her from the time she was diagnosed until she died, that he stuck with her and that he always abided by her wishes even when he doubted them.

The most interesting theme of the book is Sontag's undeniably determined intention to continue living no matter how serious her third bout with cancer. This was inextricably connected with the atheism both mother and son embraced, meaning that death meant "extinction" — an unacceptable outcome for someone who loved life as much as Sontag did.

She was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome evolving into acute myelogenous leukemia. It is probable, asserts Rieff, that the chemotherapy and radiation treatment she received three decades earlier for advanced breast cancer and uterine cancer actually triggered the more serious disease.

Rieff is at his best when describing the diagnosis given by "Dr. A," who had no bedside manner to compare to his excellent medical credentials, meaning that both Sontag and her son were devastated by what he told them. Yet mother and son worked tirelessly to get doctors in whom they could have faith and who would do everything medically possible to save her life.

This is an infinitely sad story, often written beautifully, but it is also highly repetitive which detracts from the powerful impact. Rieff, who is an editor and writer of note, especially for intellectual magazines, could have benefited by some judicious editing, even if it made the book significantly shorter.

But the chief failure here is that the son does not provide enough information about the unique intellectual contributions made by his mother — nor any insight into their family life, if there was any to speak of. The reader must look elsewhere for those. Mostly, this is a strong example of how the inevitability of death tortures a person and her loved ones — and how very, very difficult it is to achieve a satisfying rapport with medical professionals.


E-mail: [email protected]