Review published on February 23, 2018.
Scott was diagnosed with heart problems when he was a small child but was fortunate enough to receive a heart transplant, enabling him to live a relatively normal, active life. However, his single-parent mother, Josie, never stopped worrying about him; at times possibly, but understandably, over-protective of him, she devoted her life to ensuring that his needs were met and that he received the best treatment. Soon after Scott went to university his health began to fail and he started to reflect on his own future, as well as Josie’s. Well aware of the fact that by concentrating on his needs she had neglected her own, and not wanting her to face a lonely future, he decided that he would post a video on YouTube in an attempt to find the perfect man for her to fall in love with. She has no idea about the video but when he mysteriously starts to organise blind dates for her, understanding his motivation and unable to disappoint him, she reluctantly goes along with his project.
Once I started reading it wasn’t long before I felt totally caught up in the lives of Scott and Josie as they each tried to find ways of trying to deal with the almost unbearable pain of facing his premature death. How does any parent face the possibility that their child may die before they do; how many “bargains” are they prepared to make to ensure the survival of their own sick child, even if this means praying for the death of another person in order to achieve a desperately needed transplant, and how do they reconcile their guilt about this “selfishness”?
I thought that Madeleine Reiss managed to capture so many of these dilemmas in a way which was sensitive and poignant without being overly sentimental or reliant on “miracles”.
This is a funny, reflective, wise and heartbreakingly sad story, told in a way which feels searingly honest. There were times when I laughed out loud, especially with some of the weird and wonderful encounters Josie had to endure with her blind dates! Her wonderful characterisation of Scott evocatively captured the combination of naïvety and maturity of a young man on the cusp of adulthood but who was, in addition, having to face the realisation that he might not live long enough to experience all that he had hoped to achieve.
In fact, I thought that each of her characters was well-drawn and that through each one she explored so many different facets of how people deal with their feelings of powerlessness in the face of terminal illness, death, grief, mourning and loss. Without going into detail which might spoil the story for those who have yet to read it, there are so many wonderful examples of this throughout this beautifully written novel. Once Scott has posted his video, subsequent chapters start with messages from would-be suitors and these are a wonderful mixture of funny, weird and moving in their portrayal of the range of motivations encompassed in people’s search for love.
At times the author’s evocative portrayal of grief and loss was visceral in its intensity, capturing the pain of wanting so desperately to hang on but having to learn to let go. Her recognition of the split between the coping persona a bereaved person presents to the world and the inner one which feels so alone, scared and fragmented that it is hard to believe it’s possible to survive the pain of loss, was so moving and accurate that I didn’t just cry, I sobbed. However, this isn’t a book which is just about loss, it is also about hope and the recognition that love can be found in unexpected places if we open ourselves up to it. An additional bonus for me was that the story is set in Northumberland (a county close to my heart) with its magnificent coastline, castles and wildlife so vividly and evocatively captured.
I have no hesitation in recommending this book – but make sure you have a box of tissues close by when you read it!
Linda Hepworth 4/4
Before We Say Goodbye by Madeleine Reiss
Zaffre 9781785764196 pbk Feb 2018
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