A Book Review
The Forgotten Gift
by Susan Nelson
I just finished reading the book penned by the wife of Fat Cyclist (Elden Nelson) while she was enduring her final battle with breast cancer.
I cried at the end.
I cried because Susan Nelson didn't get to finish the book before she died.
Fatty is an everyday human, father of four, who took up cycling to lose weight. He blogged about his struggles in such a humorous but realistic way, he became somewhat of an overnight sensation in the cycling world. Then his wife Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer. His blogged morphed from winter-weight-gaining wannabe cyclist to the heart-rending reality of facing the shortness of life. He also took up fund-raising for cancer and has since become a role model for how to raise money and do it well.
Fatty's grief shook the cycling world. He successfully published one book, based on some of his best blog posts, and he plans to do another before publishing a cancer caregiver's guide. Last year, he also revealed his wife had written a book, and now, that book is real.
Fatty had talked up Susan's book for months. I had to wait until payday to purchase the book when it finally was released. I began reading it the night it arrived in the mail.
I had a very hard time putting the book down, even when it ruffled my feathers. "The Forgotten Gift" is a bit too long to read in a night, or, at least it's a bit too long to read in a night when the reader has to be at work - awake - bright and early the next morning. I probably would have finished that night if I could have stayed up until wee hours. (I ended up finishing in three work days.)
By about page 20, I was hooked, even though I don't easily identify with members of younger generations. Mia, the heroine and teenage star of the book, which, by the way, I could easily see being made into a movie, is a believable character with emotions and moods right in tune with today's high school seniors, down to the flip flops in icy cold weather. Even though I hated my hair short and spiky and can't stand to go anywhere without socks, I felt as if I was right next to Mia as she told this story to me in person. Sometimes it was difficult to remember this entire book was written while the author was going through chemotherapy and slowly, tortuously losing control of her life.
During Day Two of my speed read (because I wanted to write a book review and help get the word out about the book), I was aboard public transportation when romance began to bloom. I'm not much into romances, and this one was beginning to sound a bit Twilightish (although I've never read the books or seen any of the movies and have no desire to so indulge). Before the train stopped, I'd decided I didn't want to finish the book. But I turned the page. I couldn't stop reading. And then I almost missed my stop.
Griff, the best-supporting actor of the book and likely the audience favorite if this ever does hit the big screen, is studying photography, and the darkroom scenes are described in such true-to-life detail, I couldn't put the book down. I continued reading on the elevator to my office. I continued reading at my desk until my official employment hours clicked into motion. That particular chapter whisked me straightaway back to my very own 1979 darkroom and the way I used to view the fruits of my photographic outings prior to the digital age of chimping. I could smell pungent fixer in the tiny closet with vampire red glow emitting from a single bulb, and I could smell the black paint on the walls that never seemed to dry.
I knew Susan had created beautiful jewelry before breast cancer stole her life, and jewelry making fits nicely into the plot of the book. Somewhere in her life, Susan knew what it was like to be in a real darkroom, swishing paper in a tray of fluid while patiently waiting for a black and white photo to magically appear. I admired her all the more for capturing the scene so well and taking me back to a treasured time in my life. (Turns out she once was a photo editor, and that's how she knew darkrooms well enough to transport me back in time.) (Have I mentioned I enjoy time travel novels?) ("The Forgotten Gift" is not a time travel novel.)
That night, during my train ride home, the book began crawling into the realm of fantasy, and I decided once again I didn't want to finish it. I read a couple of passages aloud to The Lizard as he drove me home after picking me up at the train station, and he made me giggle.
He thought the book was about Susan, not Mia, and he thought Susan was psychotic from all the chemo and cancer-related drugs! (He knows Fatty is working on a book about Susan's battle with cancer, and I suppose he thought this was that book.)
I explained this is a novel, "an interrupted novel" at that, because Susan died before she was able to write the final chapter. She'd made Fatty promise to finish the book and get it published. He tried to help her get it finished, but in the end, as Susan slowly slipped away and lost touch with reality, he read passages to her to try to get her familiar with the characters and plot again. She couldn't remember writing any of it.
That was 2009. Fatty finally decided last year to let the book stand exactly as Susan wrote it.
I didn't know how I would feel about reaching the end and not having an end. Normally, I kind of like making up my own ending. I have plenty of imagination, and I was pretty sure I could come up with a satisfactory one on my own. The Lizard and I discussed some of our favorite movies... "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Star Trek," "Lord of the Rings", "Back to the Future"... What was I thinking??? Of course I like fantasy. I LOVE fantasy! I'm just picky about what fantasies I like.
I avoid R-ratings in print and on screen. We watch the sanitized version of "Avatar" once in a while. I like the movie that way. I don't need ugly stuff to enjoy my entertainment. I saw enough ugliness while working as a police reporter for my first newspaper, the very same newspaper where I perfected my darkroom skills, that I don't need to read or see every detail in order for my adrenaline to rage.
"The Forgotten Gift" is not R-rated, thankfully. There is one section, perhaps two pages long, that bordered the fine line of violence I detest crossing because I saw so much of it (or the result of it) in real life, but by that segment of the book, I was so drawn into the characters, I wanted to know how the book ended. As it turned out, the couple of pages that made my stomach turn weren't as bad as I anticipated, and they actually added to the plot. If this book ever does hit the big screen, I will be turning away during that particular scene, but I won't skip the movie due to that one small part.
"The Forgotten Gift" could easily have become a trilogy. Or more.
When Susan died, I cried because I felt like I knew her through Fatty's blog. I cried because she wouldn't get to see her kids grow up. I cried because she fought so hard, but the cancer just kept coming back.
Now I cry because she didn't get to finish her book.
I can make up an ending. I can make up several. As I said, I can see sequels. Susan's ending is fine. But it broke my heart because I know how it feels to not be able to finish something I've started. How many times have I started a paragraph, become distracted and lost my train of thought, never to be able to duplicate the idea that once seemed so grand. However, I've never experienced dying before finishing something important to me.
I'm a writer, too. As much as I wish Susan had been able to conquer the tumors, raise her family and enjoy her grandchildren one day, I wish Susan had been able to finish her book and the sequel she envisioned.
Sometimes I picture her looking down on her family, feeling their joys, spiritually bracing them up through their own trials.
Now I picture her thumbing through her book, perhaps with a smile on her face.
She has to be pleased.
NOTE: The book is available here. I receive no compensation whatsoever for writing this review or providing a link to purchase a copy, but I do hope to help Fatty's family. Plus, "The Forgotten Gift" is a great book, and I truly believe it should be enjoyed.