As of this moment, I have four friends in various phases of treatment for late stage cancer. It’s a scary thing, to know four women in my own age group who are facing the very real possibility of untimely death.
So I was almost afraid to read Ellyn Bache’s book, The Art of Saying Goodbye, which is about a group of women friends who must say goodbye to the centerpiece of their group, Paisley Lamm, a woman filled with vitality and the excitement of living, a woman who has kept each member of the group going through difficult experiences in their own lives, and woman who has, in effect, “breathed life into them all.”
But I needn’t have been afraid. The book is poignant, yes. It’s thoughtful, yes. But it’s also funny, and warm, and truthful. Each character – feisty Iona, the oldest member of the group famous for her tough, no-nonsense attitude; Ginger, a woman trying to reconcile her career ambitions with her desire to be a good wife and mother; Andrea, who appears strong on the outside, but harbors secret fears and disappointments on the inside; and Julianne, a nurse who has an unnerving ability to actually feel what’s going on inside her patients – brings their own spark of personality to the tale, and illustrates the way a group of individuals can come together and find strength when it’s needed the most. Each woman reacts differently to Paisley’s illness, and in their reactions, they discover important truths about their own lives.
A novel like this could easily fall into the saccharine, too sweet for words kind of story that gives women’s fiction a bad name among more “serious” readers. But Bache’s writing is so good, there’s no chance of that happening. She’s got a wonderful way of showing (not telling) which is the mark of a seasoned writer. And she sprinkles in just enough wit (in the form of Iona’s character) to give the novel a little zest. Like this passage:
When Iona goes to her front door and sees Marie Coleman standing there, her first inclination is to slink back into the house and pretend she’s not home. Marie, in a simple but expensive looking brown sweater and trendy jeans that hug her shapely bottom, doesn’t look like the local do-gooder church lady, but she is. Marie doesn’t just go to church – she lives and breathes it.
If this is a God thing, Iona thinks, I’m out of here.
In an afterword to the book, Bache writes that the novel “began with something that really happened many years ago” in her suburban neighborhood. She decided to write about it after realizing how many women had gone through similar situations. The Art of Saying Goodbye has given me much to think about. It’s a compellingly readable book, but it’s more than light summer reading. After all, it deals with one of the biggest transformations in the course of a lifetime. But it does so in an utterly honest and relatable way.
The Art of Saying Goodbye, by Ellyn Bache
published 2011, by William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers
334 pages, with Author Insights and Reading Group Guide
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