Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein has an almost unbearably sad premise: Karen Neulander, a 40-something political consultant and single mother to a 6 year-old boy named Jake, is dying. She has had a recurrence of ovarian cancer, and is two years into a four-year prognosis. She decides to write a book – a memoir – for Jake, so that he can read it when he is older and understand who his mother was.
Well, I read Our Short History, and I made it through to the other side. I didn’t even cry until the last few pages (and no, Karen doesn’t die at the end of the book). It is sad, to be sure, but it’s also well-written and funny at times and not needlessly maudlin. Karen is flawed, but realistically human. She is in a terrible situation and she’s trying to make the best of it. She is a dedicated, diligent mother with large – but not infinite – reserves of patience for her son, and she’s smart and determined. She also happens to have Stage IV cancer, which has thrown her a big curveball.
The book opens with Jake asking Karen, once again, to find his father and introduce them to each other. Karen has resisted this request of Jake’s for many years, but he has worn her down, and given her (and his) circumstances, she finally relents. She sends a Facebook message to the man she had dated seven years earlier, whom she had loved but who told her he didn’t want children. Karen doesn’t really think through all of the ramifications of this outreach (which is kind of unlike her) – if Dave wants to see Jake, how often will she let that happen? Will visitation become a regular thing? What rights might he have to custody? Will he try to get custody after Karen dies?
Karen may be frustrating at time, even irrational, but I don’t know who wouldn’t be in the same situation. Grodstein has created an utterly realistic depiction of the choices a mother would reasonably make facing her premature death and the care of her beloved son. Karen loves Jake with a ferocity than even she can’t control sometimes, which pushes her to behave in ways she might regret, but which are oh so understandable.
So yes, Our Short History is a sad book, and at times Karen’s plight took my breath away. But I appreciate Grodstein’s writing and her storytelling, which made this much more than a tearjerker. I am a fan of her earlier works, and was not disappointed at all by this one.
I listened to Our Short History on audio. It was performed by accomplished narrator and EDIWTB friend Karen White, who did a great job with this one. She conveyed (fictional) Karen’s desperation and anger as persuasively as she did Karen’s pride and pettiness. I wonder how hard it was to keep her composure when she got to some of the more difficult scenes in the novel. Overall, excellent audiobook.