I’ve written fairly extensively about how much I dislike unreliable narrators, and how books written to damage the psyche are, I think, grotesque and antithetical to everything I want in a book. The narrator here is struggling through a fairly difficult time in her life, and therefore can’t always be relied on to objectively perceive her reality – but I think it’s handled in a way that is fair to the characters, and it’s done in service to the story, not as some cheap ploy to shock or titillate.
Before I Go begins with kale. Daisy is out of kale because her husband fed it to their dog, and he’s really sorry. He’ll stop by the store to get some more. But you can’t get organic kale just anywhere. The farmers market from which she gets it won’t be open until Monday. But Daisy puts on a brave face. It’s just kale.
It’s just kale.
Only it’s not kale. It’s cancer that has got her so upset.
And the book is off. The narrative traces a circuitous path through Daisy’s day as she’s faced with the constant interruption of her cancer diagnosis. It interjects on her daily activities, a reminder that her life has been given an expiration date.
I absolutely loved this book. Maybe it was because I needed a break from my attempt to read all the popular books by airport novelists, maybe it was the stellar audiobook narration by the inimitable Rebecca Lowman (who will be familiar to Rainbow Rowell fans), maybe it was Colleen Oakley’s warm and tender writing. Whatever it was – this might be my favorite book of the year (maybe).
Every description I read of this book muted my interest, if I’m being perfectly honest. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, a woman sets out to find a new wife for her husband before she passes. She does WHAT? I know this probably sounds like a saccharine movie of the week starring, I don’t know, Reese Witherspoon – but it’s not.
Oakley develops strong, believable characters. Daisy isn’t bravely facing her mortality, but she isn’t weeping uncontrollably, either. She is, I think, what most of us would be: trying to face the infinite unknown and succeeding some of the time. The narrative, written in the first person from Daisy’s perspective, is interspersed with reflections on her relationship with Jack. The anecdotes feel organic and natural to the story being told, and they always add something to the characters.
The central premise – that Daisy wants to find her husband a replacement wife – isn’t what I thought it was going to be. I pictured some almost slapstick-y series of misunderstandings before she finally realizes that she should spend the remainder of her time with her husband actually being with him. But that’s not how I read it. To me, it came off as more of a failed coping mechanism for her depression and anxiety. Daisy makes lists. She organizes. She cleans so that her world doesn’t reflect the inner turmoil that threatens to rip her apart. These are coping strategies she learned early in life, but they aren’t up to the task of helping her through what she’s presently experiencing. The mission to find a woman for Jack to fall in love with falls into this same pattern of behavior: she’s trying to force some measure of control at a time when she is at the mercy of a terminal illness. It’s an unhealthy strategy, and it isn’t treated for laughs.
Which brings us back to why I loved the book so much: despite the heavy topic, this never feels like something designed to elicit tears. This isn’t melodrama, and it doesn’t feel like a Cancer book. It’s the story of a woman and her marriage during a very difficult time, yes, but it always seems less about Cancer than it is the characters impacted by the illness.
I can’t speak for anyone else, obviously, and this book may not be for everyone (judging by the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, not everyone fell in love with it like I did), but I eagerly away Oakley’s next book (which was released this past March).
Not previously reviewed for the Cannonball Read.