Karen Neulander is a single mother with Stage 4 ovarian cancer with perhaps two years left to live. She writes a book for her six-year-old son Jacob, the book we are reading but which is intended for Jacob when he is older. At Jacob’s request, Karen contacts his biological father Dave whose desire not to have children led to Karen’s breakup with him. Karen has to deal with her mortality and her fears about what will happen to her son once she dies.
The structural framework of the novel is awkward. Karen writes the book because “It seems like the right way to tell you everything I want you to know.” She also clarifies that she will include “whatever wisdom I have, whatever lessons I’d pass on to you later . . . [and] my hope is that whenever you miss me or whenever you just want to know more about the person I was, you’ll be able to open this book and read these pages and remember me.” Would a mother really keep describing her extreme physical pain? Why would she include such details about her job as a political consultant and her major client at the moment? Though the book shows a growth/change in Karen’s thinking, why would she want to show her son the events that led to her epiphany? Since Karen writes a day-by-day account of events, a diary or journal format would be more appropriate.
Karen is not a likeable character. In her professional life, as she admits, she has no qualms about using “dirty tricks” to smear an opponent’s reputation and whitewash her client’s scandals. She describes her current client as “one of the least trustworthy people I’d ever met” yet she never considers dropping him. She is very self-centred as well though, given her circumstances, her selfishness is totally understandable. At times, her only redeeming quality is her love for her son. Were it not for her terminal cancer diagnosis, it would be difficult to have much sympathy for her.
Karen’s character change is convincing. Her fierce love for her son makes her capable of change and she has sufficient motivation to do so within the duration of the novel. Dave’s change is less realistic. He seems so very different from how Karen describes him. Not only is he handsome and wealthy with a supportive wife, he seems totally reformed. His lack of experience means he makes mistakes as a father, but he is so well-meaning and tries so hard to be a good father. He just seems too good to be true.
Of course, there is the spectre of unreliability in Karen’s narration. At the beginning of the book, she states, “I plan to be honest here. I plan to be excruciatingly, extraordinarily honest. I will not edit out the truth; I will not try to make myself look better than I really was. Than I really am.” But does she really portray Dave as he was or have her emotions negatively coloured her portrayal? At one point, she writes to Jacob that, “Your father was remembering what he wanted to remember in order to make himself feel better.” Is the same not true for her? And again, is it fitting that in her book to her son, Karen writes things like “no matter what else he turned out to be in life your father was also, indubitably, a moron” and “He was lying; your father was a liar”?
The novel examines parental love. What does it mean to really love a child? Unfortunately, Karen’s realization is expected so the ending is predictable; in fact, much of the book feels like waiting for Karen to finally see the light.
The book is written in a conversational, informal style which makes it easy to read. It is insightful in some respects but its unwieldy framework detracts from the whole.
Note: I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.