Lake Union Publishing, November 2015
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.
I realize that I’ve been drawn to books with tragic themes lately. First Voices from Chernobyl, now this novel about cancer by Camille Pagán. I will say that this is not the tearjerker I was expecting, though it is that in part. It’s very funny in parts, and there’s a love story thrown in as well: all in all, it’s a book that surprised me in a lot of good ways.
Life and Other Near-Death Experiences is the story of Libby, a young woman who finds out she has a rare cancer the same day she finds out her long-time husband is gay, and she goes off the deep end for awhile. She’s funny, she’s brittle, she leaves for an impromptu trip to Puerto Rico to visit a place her mother, long dead of cancer, visited. Pagán is good at keeping the dialogue witty and Libby’s life interesting from the premise and the development. It’s not a book about a series of characters: it’s a first-person story told by Libby, and she’s definitely the most-rounded character. Her scenes with her brother are quite affecting, and Pagán in general gets the vulnerable moments down really well.
Finally, I feel calling this a cancer book is a bit misleading: this book is much more in the tradition of fiction with a flawed but engaging heroine. Yes, there’s personal development and therapeutic progress as she deals with her mother’s death. Yes, there’s romance. Yes, there’s a huge complication of cancer and an imploding marriage, but the elements work and I suspended my disbelief about Libby’s fugue after her cancer diagnosis.
Recommending first-person stories is a risky business. I really liked this one, and if you sample a few pages you’ll know if you’re in the mood for this one.