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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book Review: What We Have: A Family's Inspiring Story About Love, Loss, and Survival by Amy Boesky

You would expect this book to be really sad, but I found it ultimately hopeful.

Every woman in Amy's family (bar one) has died of ovarian cancer, most in their mid-40s. Amy and her sisters know they are extremely high risk, and so they live their lives in fear, and they also have harder deadlines for things like having children, than most of us experience. But Amy, an academic, has been caught up in the world of graduate school and doesn't even meet her husband until her early 30s (behind schedule!) She feels pressure to have a baby right away, and is overjoyed when her sister is pregnant at the same time. Then one tragedy strikes. Meanwhile, Amy is moving, getting used to living with her new husband, Jacques, and on the tenure-track at her University. A worrier, the looming deadline for her to seriously consider a prophylactic hysterectomy, casts a shadow over all.

The book is really well-written. I found it a little funny in fact that while Amy has no control over her worrying and occasional panic while it's happening, she has enough distance to be able later to report it to us in a way that shows she is very aware she's high-strung, and occasionally unreasonable in her fears. Her husband Jacques is not at all a worrier - he's more of a wait-and-see comparison shopper. While they do balance each other well, their differences lead to natural conflicts.

One thing I thought was very well done in this book was discussing the triangles that occur with two sisters and a mother (I also am one of 3 girls), us against them, them against me, a sister and a mother against another sister, and so on. Who tells who what when, in what order, is very important. When she finds out news about her sister from her mother, it stings that her sister hasn't told her.

In the course of this memoir, scientific developments advance, and at the end, at the same time that Amy's hysterectomy is scheduled, they could be tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. But she and her sisters are reluctant to do so. Does knowing make things better or worse? Is uncertainty torture, or a gift?

Ms. Boesky is a sharp writer. The book might be a little academic for some but I grew up in academia so that feels like home to me. The tragedies are heartbreaking, and I do hope she and her sisters (and daughters) have managed to change their family's destiny. Whenever I put the book down I was thinking about it, and had to pick it back up right away. Their story is sad but filled with hope and inspiration.

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