Cancer is often used in fiction (and even nonfiction) as a gimmick. Like the reunion of lovers long separated by a noble war, cancer can be thrown like an emotional sucker punch, orchestrated as an easy puller of heartstrings — probably because so many of us have personal experience with it and know just how truly terrifying and painful the disease can be.
But many books that involve cancer manage to rise above a soap-operatic exploitation of it. Our Short History is one such tale. It’s a tearjerker without being schmaltzy, a realistic look at what someone who is independent, headstrong, and fiercely protective of her young son might do when faced with her own mortality too soon.
Karen Neulander is a forty-one-year-old political consultant, and as such she’s seen it all and takes no prisoners. The conception of her son was a surprise, and her boyfriend of six months, Dave, was not interested in nor ready to take on that kind of responsibility. The years Karen consequently spends raising Jacob on her own in Manhattan, without the man who broke her heart, are both a challenge and an unexpected gift. But when Jake is just a toddler, the doctors give her four years to live, and now it seems like even that truncated timeline is going to be cut short. Her six-year-old son has a soft place to land in the loving family of Karen’s sister, Allison, which is some, but not enough, consolation. Now, the boy has a reasonable request: to meet his dad. And, to complicate matters further, Jacob’s dad is desperate to meet him too.
Our Short History is about a woman who’s used to calling the shots now being forced to negotiate: with her sister, her business partner, her lecherous politician client, her doctors, her son, her son’s father. With the cancer, and with whatever caused her fate to twist in such a cruel way. These are the kinds of negotiations any of us might make if we were forced to imagine the little world we’d worked so hard to build without us in it. Through honesty, swift pacing, convincing details, and humor, this book unflinchingly and unsentimentally lays bare the last love- and pain-filled months of a cancer victim’s life and the lives of those who love her.
Anna Katz is a freelance writer, ghostwriter, and editor. She is the author of Swimming Holes of Washington, Easy Weekend Getaways from Seattle, and the forthcoming The Art of Ramona Quimby.