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Our Short History: A Novel by Lauren…
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Our Short History: A Novel

by Lauren Grodstein

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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 of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Please check out my reader's blog (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski). ( )
  Schatje | Mar 21, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I really enjoyed following the story to the end. It was hard to see that the mother was not giving the son time to get to know the Dad that he so longs to know. It was a little slow for me in the middle.
I enjoyed getting the story of her life in the political world. It was interesting as Karen struggled to find the path for her son and learned about herself in the end.
I enjoyed the story and was surprised with the book because it is not something I would normally enjoy. ( )
  hope3957 | Mar 13, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I received a copy of this book in the Librarything.com's Early Reviewer program. Although this was a difficult book to read, with the main character being a woman dying of cancer, I loved the characters and found it a beautiful story.
  tansley | Feb 27, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Heartbreaking novel about love, family. Illness and acceptance. A first person novel where the main character is dying of ovarian cancer and she is writing the book for her six year old to read when he gets older. Would highly recommend the book. ( )
  joeinma | Feb 26, 2017 |
Our Short History is one of those books that will break your heart six ways to Sunday. Karen is a single mother who adores her six-year-old son Jake, though he’s expecting a lot from her when he asks to meet his father–the man who dumped her when she told him she was pregnant. Yes, she’s bitter and she has so many reasons to be. But, Jake has a reason for wanting to get to know his father. You see, his mother is dying and although she’s already arranged a safe and secure future for him with her sister, he still wants to know his dad.

We know how much this hurts Karen because she tells us. She tells us everything. That’s the conceit of Our Short History. It is the book Karen writes for Jake to read when he’s old enough to understand, set aside for when he grows up, so he can learn more about his mother.

There is a secondary storyline, Karen is a political consultant and her last client is admirable in many ways, but unfaithful on occasion, seeking excitement with young women. His opponent is a woman with an appealing bootstrap immigrant story. Karen struggles with liking the opponent more than her client.

I cried throughout this book from beginning to end. I guess I am not in a place to be reading about someone dying of cancer so soon after my sister’s death. It’s funny, though, because many of my conversations with my sister while she was dying were focused on how her children and grandchildren would do after her death. She worried about them even though they are adults. She spent a lot of time preparing, wanting to get everything right. How much more, then, would a mother concern herself over taking care of her six-year-old son.

I liked that Karen was not too perfect, that she lost her cool, that she could be petty. There was a lot that was very realistic and natural, though sometimes it felt too natural. She would write advice, random and scattered notions that come to mind just the way they would in reality, but I am someone who prefers Klee and Kandinsky to Rembrandt and Courbet. I would like more art, less naturalism, in particular with the advice.

So this is a decent story and no one can expect to read a story about someone dying of cancer without some tears. However, this book is one that deliberately tries to wring out every possible tear it can. There’s a funeral eulogy for another character that is unusual, perhaps unusually honest, but really, it’s an exercise is pulling your heart strings. So often I felt pushed and shoved into grieving, it made me resentful. All that crying gave me a headache.

Perhaps it is just too soon after losing my sister to be reading such a mournful book, perhaps I cannot be fair. All I know is that while Our Short History was effective in plucking my emotions, playing them for all their worth, the book would have been better if she had focused more on making us think and less on making us cry.

Our Short History will be released March 21st. I received an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.

★★★
http://tonstantweaderreviews.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/9781616206222/ ( )
  Tonstant.Weader | Feb 25, 2017 |
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