At my age – 52, remember? – it becomes increasingly likely that I’ll develop cancer. Thirty-seven percent of us women do, over the course of our lifetimes. I don’t worry about it. Cancer isn’t on my radar. I’m much more concerned I’ll give some lowlife in Walmart the evil eye for yelling at his kid and he’ll shoot me dead because STAND YOUR GROUND, FLORIDA, FUCKIN’ A!
Anyway, since I can’t conceive of ever having cancer, I optimistically think that if I do, I’ll respond the way Catherine does in Katrina Anne Willis’ excellent first novel, Parting Gifts. She accepts the diagnosis as though it’s a chore on her never-ending to-do list, a task to be completed, like a thesis or an annual spring-cleaning. She plows through it. As readers, we are grateful for her perseverance – because chemotherapy and hair loss are just the tip of her complicated iceberg of a story.
Parting Gifts recounts the story of Catherine and her two sisters, Anne and Jessica, as they struggle mid-life to define themselves beyond stereotypes, appearances, and misperceptions. Catherine is a unmarried college professor who unexpectedly is attracted to one of her female students. Anne, married with two children, frets about money, her weight, and her mother, who lives uncomfortably in a nursing home and suffers from worsening dementia. And Jessica long ago estranged herself from her suburbanite sisters, and – seeking to bury a childhood secret – embarked on a career as an exotic dancer.
The catalyst for the three sisters to reunite is their mother’s fragile health, but their initial encounters feel fraught with resentment and envy. The question is whether the siblings will ever be able to trust each other again – to forgive the transgressions, both real and imagined, and have courage enough to unearth the ever-present but hibernating familial love.
Parting Gifts is a big, beautiful, family drama, but its storyline reaches past any predictable saga and into what it means to be a woman – particularly a middle-aged woman so buried in the rote daily monotony that she has forgotten what it means to live and love. We watch the three sisters struggle to accept each other despite their divergent paths in life, and it’s painful to see how they judge one other using narrow-minded, shallow standards for success. A sudden family tragedy doesn’t so much bring them together as force them together, and allow them to once again see and feel the invisible tether which has always kept them connected.
Willis packs so many modern life challenges into her novel – cancer, marriage, money, family discord – but the overriding theme is love, and the need to embrace love if life’s challenges are to be overcome. Perhaps it’s an adage you’ve read before, but in Parting Gifts, it’s definitely worth reading again.
NOTE OF FULL DISCLOSURE: Katrina Anne Willis has been my writer-sister-friend for several years. But that’s only because she’s so good.