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Political wife Edwards shares private pain

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During the 2004 presidential campaign, Elizabeth Edwards was in many ways the most likable figure among all the contenders for national office and their spouses: unpretentious and direct. Sharp. Funny. Real.

News that the wife of Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards had discovered a lump in her breast during the campaign's final push -- and was diagnosed with cancer the day after the election -- brought 65,000 e-mails from strangers and the promise of a book about how she coped with a national political campaign and a devastating personal diagnosis.

That is not the book Elizabeth Edwards has written.

Instead, the heart of Saving Graces is the story of surviving the central tragedy of her life: the death of her son, Wade, in 1996. At 16, he was killed on his way to the family's beach house when the wind flipped over his car.

She describes the shocking news, the overwhelming sorrow, the long recovery and her continuing grief with raw honesty and the benefit of a decade of reflection.

Surely no parent could read her account without aching in empathy.

For two years, she went to Wade's grave every day, clearing twigs and reading aloud to him. Through that time, Wade's younger sister, Cate, slept in chairs pulled together alongside her parents' bed rather than retreat alone to her room.

And during those days, a community of longtime friends and complete strangers enveloped Edwards in endless conversations and online chats, trying to understand the inexplicable.

Years later on the campaign trail, people, most of them women, would take her aside and say quietly, "I lost a child, too," instant sisters in a terrible sorority.

In the end, Edwards' resilience and humor reasserted themselves, especially as she struggled to get pregnant again in her late 40s and early 50s. The two rambunctious additions to the family: Emma Claire and Jack.

In the aftermath of that, her account of undergoing chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and radiation -- her prognosis is now good, she says -- seems almost perfunctory.

With Wade's death, she writes, "we had all been through the worst life could deal us" already.

Edwards is engagingly transparent about her private life but less candid about her political one -- though there are a few tidbits. For one, she indicates that before the 2004 campaign began, John Edwards moved away from Democratic superstrategist Bob Shrum, not the other way around. (With some fanfare, Shrum signed on with John Kerry.)

But Elizabeth Edwards generally curbs her wry eye when it comes to the campaign, including her views of Kerry and his wife, Teresa. John Edwards and his future, including an expected bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, aren't center stage here.

Despite the expectations, this book is not about politics. It's about life and making sense of death.

Saving Graces

By Elizabeth Edwards

Broadway, 340 pp., $24.95

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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