Seventeen-year-old Maddie O’Neill Levine lives a charmed life, and is primed to spend the perfect pre-college summer with her best friends and young-at-heart socialite grandmother (also Maddie’s closest confidante), tying up high school loose ends. Maddie’s plans change the instant Gram announces that she is terminally ill and has booked the family on a secret “death with dignity” cruise ship so that she can leave the world in her own unconventional way – and give the O’Neill clan an unforgettable summer of dreams-come-true in the process.
Soon, Maddie is on the trip of a lifetime with her over-the-top family. As they travel the globe, Maddie bonds with other passengers and falls for Enzo, who is processing his own grief. But despite the laughter, headiness of first love, and excitement of glamorous destinations, Maddie knows she is on the brink of losing Gram. She struggles to find the strength to say good-bye in a whirlwind summer shaped by love, loss, and the power of forgiveness.
Teens often have difficulty facing books about death, much as they do in real life. Too often the death of a grandparent is an off-screen action that is the catalyst for a behaviour or decision that propels the book forward. I’ll admit it: when I first received this book, I thought it was going to be a fun, maybe a little fluffy book about a teenage girl and life-lessons from her grandmother. What I wasn’t expecting was a thoughtful coming-of-age story that is not about growing from youth into adulthood, but rather about learning from life and death the lessons that will guide you throughout your life.
Maddie O’Neal Levine has a pretty great life. She’s a strong student, with great friends. Her family fits the classic sarcastic wise-cracking New Yorker so often seen in books. She attends a prestigious school, and while her family may be a little odd, and her mother’s relationship with alcohol worrisome, Maddie can always count on her Gram to pull things together for her. Gram lives in New York, takes her to the theatre and to dinner and manages the whole crazy family with aplomb. What Gram also has is terminal pancreatic cancer, a great deal of money and a determination to die on her own terms – namely, with her family on a year-long “death with dignity” cruise around the world.
In other hands, this might have been a fluffy ‘movie of the week/lessons learned’ piece. Luckily, Firestone has a deft hand with her narrative, and we quickly come to know and appreciate the characters she brings into the story. While Gram may be the catalyst for getting on the boat, it’s Maddie and her cousin Janie who give us perspective and insight into the different families on board. Over time, Maddie, Janie and the readers develop real affection for Vito and his Christmas dreams, Holly and baby Grace, Surfer Mark and Buffoon Burt and the others. It’s easy to forget that they are all there for the same purpose, so when they begin to make the choice to end their lives, we as readers feel the emotional hit as much as Maddie and her family. With the loss of each on-board member, you can sense how Maddie is changing, and how she begins to deal with the forthcoming loss of her own beloved Gram.
I appreciated that Maddie’s affair with Enzo was as complicated as the rest of her time on board. The instant attraction between Maddie and Enzo may be a little much, considering the reason for the cruise, but it works itself out over the course of the book. Enzo has his own emotional baggage to carry on the ship, and the evolution of their relationship from ‘shipboard romance’ if you will to something deeper and more meaningful, especially as they travel the world and have to make plans for their respective futures. The use of text messages to share conversations between their ‘bumblebees’ was a great addition, and fit perfectly into their characters. These are teenagers, and their conversations and actions reflect that time of life when we don’t always think before we act, or consider others before we speak.
Probably my favourite character has to be Maddie grandmother, Astrid North O’Neill, aka Gram. A few years ago, Will Schwalbe wrote a wonderful book called The End of Your Life Book Club about his relationship with his mother in her final year of living with pancreatic cancer, and Astrid reminded me of Will’s real-life mother. I loved the real Mary Anne and have the same feelings towards Astrid, even though she is fictional. I wanted to know Astrid, and to have had dinner with her in order to hear all about her life. I loved that she took charge of the decision on how she wanted to end her life, and that she was determined to bring the people she loved most with her. I loved that she reconnected with her first love, Bob Johns, and how Firestone wove in a historical reminder of the racial hatred the two of them would have faced when they were younger without belabouring the point. I loved that she wouldn’t waste time on platitudes, but that she wanted to go out and live her life and revisit special places. Her relationship with her sister, Rose turns from a point of humour to one of sweet affection, and you can see who they were as bright young women, both in love and looking forward to their lives together.
I’m not saying a lot about the plot of this book, partially because it’s pretty clear what will happen – this is a “death with dignity” cruise, so no surprises – but also because I think the journey is an unexpected joy to read. Teen readers may find the book uncomfortable, especially if they haven’t had an experience with death before, but I think that’s a good thing. Maddie herself is uncomfortable with the prospect of her Gram’s death – so much so that she pushes it to the back of her mind, and tries to behave as if everything is normal: boys, romance, etc. Slowly, however, Maddie comes to terms with what death means for each individual on board, and the power of loss. She also begins to appreciate the joy we have in choosing how to live our life, and that there is great sadness in a life that is spent alone and apart from others.
There’s some wonderful topics discussed in this book, such as euthanasia, the power of choice, and what we choose to give value to in our lives, that will leave readers thinking long after the story ends. While this may be a teen read, it definitely reaches well beyond it’s classification as the story is universal. We will all face the death of our loved ones at some point; perhaps we need to create our own “loose ends list” long before that point so that we can truly enjoy the life we are meant to live.
The Loose Ends List is published by Little, Brown and distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books. A copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. It is available for purchase June 7th from your favourite online, chain or indie booksellers. ISBN: 9780316382823, 352 pages.