Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Book Review: "A Life in Men" by Gina Frangello

If you were told you had a disease that would ultimately shorten your life, would you live your remaining days and/or years differently? Would you prize your happiness and fulfillment over others? These are just some of the questions addressed by Gina Frangello's A Life in Men, a beautifully written, compelling book that is both moving and a bit frustrating.

Mary and Nix were best friends since childhood, inseparable and fiercely loyal to each other. When Mary is diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at age 17, it throws their friendship into a bit of an emotional uproar. The two go on a vacation trip to Greece just before college, and Nix is determined that what might be Mary's last vacation be the trip of a lifetime. Yet one tumultuous day and evening in Greece, everything changes, and their friendship rapidly dissolves, leaving Mary to wonder exactly what happened.

Three years later, Nix is dead, and Mary continues to surprise her doctors by surviving, even thriving. She moves to London, where Nix was living when she died, in an effort to try and understand what her friend became and what happened to her. It is in London, living in a group house with three men, that she embarks on her first romantic relationship, and begins a period of her life driven by impulse, the need for love and sex (and not necessarily in that order), the desire to feel as if she is living her time-limited life to the fullest, and ensure that no one is trying to shelter or protect her.

Mary's life takes her all over the world—South Africa, Mexico, Spain, Amsterdam, Morocco—and she drifts from relationship to relationship, mostly governed by her need to feel she isn't squandering what she has left of her life. Even meeting the man she believes to be the love of her life doesn't fulfill her quite the way it should—she's constantly driven by the desire to do whatever she wants. Raised by adoptive parents, she gets the chance to meet her biological father and half-brother, which also gives her the chance to be reunited with two people she thought she'd never see again.

The book shifts between Mary and Nix's time in Greece and Mary's journeys all over the world. As she begins to understand what happened to Nix that night in Greece, it compels Mary to live her life even more, despite the toll it takes on her body and her marriage. But it also helps her understand what love is, what it means to love and be loved.

I enjoyed this book and was completely drawn into the story, even as it frustrated me. While understandably, Mary's life is challenging, she's not the most sympathetic character, and I couldn't believe the way she treated people who cared about her. And as in real life, so much in this book hinged on things that weren't said, and I found myself urging the characters just to say what they're feeling or thinking. I also felt that the very last chapter in the book tied things up far too neatly and coincidentally, and that irritated me a bit.

Frangello is a terrific writer, and she created some wonderfully memorable characters and tremendously beautiful imagery of the places where Mary travels. And there's no denying this book is powerful and moving—I'll admit I got a little choked up at times. And it definitely makes you wonder how you'd live your life if confronted with the same type of diagnosis Mary was.

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