Robinson, whose numerous credits include “Braveheart“ and “Last Orders,“ employs the tricky device of writing her tome as a one-sided set of letters written by Olivia Hunt, a film producer, over the course of a year when her sister Maddie battles leukemia. As she flies back and forth between the small town in Ohio where Maddie still lives and Los Angeles, where she‘s working on a new cinematic treatment of “Don Quixote,“ she writes prolifically to her best friend Tina, ex-boyfriend Michael, her parents, Maddie, and even (real-life) industry players.
Good letters are a thing of wonder and can make for good books, especially if there is a variety of subjects to whom the letters are being written, which helps keep tone and topics lively. The same technique was used with less success in Spring 2003 in Lionel Shriver‘s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,“ a book of letters written exclusively by a woman to her ex-husband regarding their son, Kevin, who committed a horrific Columbine-styled crime. In that instance, the focus of the letters was much more specific to the point of view and voice seeming claustrophobic. What Robinson offers up is not always the most sophisticated prose, but her conversational tone and eye for detail gives it credibility and makes it highly readable.
For example, consider this excerpt from the opening of the book where Olivia sends a missive to friend Tina:
“35,000 feet over Nevada
188 Westborne Park Road
Portland, Oregon 97211
I was sitting at home yesterday (where else?) working on the fourth draft of my suicide note when I got the call. I resented the interruption and nearly didn‘t answer the phone. I was having a hard time getting the tone right and, as we‘ve discussed, tone is everything in correspondence. This seems especially true when it comes to your very, very, very last words. (But I now wonder: is a suicide note correspondence?) The first draft was too angry, especially toward Michael, whom in fact I do not resent for dumping me. Why would I? He was doing me a favor, putting me out of my misery, which is what living with him was like. No, the raging anger and hate hate hate were misdirected in this draft; they were really meant for my former boss, the president of Universal Pictures, Mr. Josh Miller.
As you may recall from our previous discussions, this guy is a real (expletive). You remember -- the one whose lip curls up to the right when he speaks in his irregular British accent, which he can‘t seem to shake since his junior year abroad twenty years ago. Whose pride and joy is not his five-year-old son but his custom-made butter yellow Rolls-Royce. Josh, whose fleshy face resembles a rhino‘s -- beady wide-set eyes blinking between a mother of a snout, or maybe it‘s the personality that makes one think of a dangerous, stupid beast -- and whose tongue I found down my throat at the company Christmas party? (I know, I should have sued him as you advised, but I was afraid of being blacklisted.) It was Josh Miller -- of the Hollywood Miller dynasty -- who after three years as my boss still looked at me with a face that said: Who let her in? Who stuck me on that Babe rip-off Lloyd the Hamster and then fired me the day it tanked, as I repeatedly warned him it would. Clearly, Josh was the true villain in my life story and deserved all the hate in my soon-to-expire heart, not dear Michael. But I couldn‘t give that windbag the satisfaction of knowing he drove me to suicide, could I? After further analysis, I realized that of course there were other people I deeply deeply hated too. So, yesterday afternoon, as the super pounded the eviction notice into my hollow apartment door, I committed to another draft.
Now, I love my mother. We all love our mothers, don‘t we? Dad, too, okay; somehow. But let‘s be honest here. You and I both know they destroyed any chances I had in this world. Don‘t say “therapy“ to me, Tina; you know Dr. Schteinlegger did his very best for two years before throwing up his professional hands. I know these dear people from whose clueless loins I sprang have everything to do with why I‘m a complete failure, but that sounded so common. Who doesn‘t blame their parents? That draft was full of clichéés and self-pity, and if it‘s one thing I‘m not, it‘s self-pitying.“
Olivia thinks she has troubles (being unemployed, lonely and on that fourth draft of a suicide note), but when happy-in-her-hometown-married-to-her-sweetheart Maddie is stricken with illness, older sibling Olivia is charged with looking beyond her own unhappiness and trying to help her sister as best she can.
As many might do, Olivia uses the time spent on airplanes and in hospital rooms to put down her thoughts to those who matter most in her confused and seemingly aimless life, and the very act provides a venue for clarity about her overflowing emotions. Particularly effective is Robinson‘s insider knowledge of Hollywood, which results in some of the book‘s most vivid and humorous sections.
From the tantrums of quirky studio executives to send-ups of Robin Williams and John Cleese, these bits are injected just as the reader senses needing a break from the heartache of a terminal illness, and are delivered in a sly, tongue-in-cheek manner.
Olivia is a well-crafted heroine, and the creation of Maddie, who is completely different from her big sister, works well in contrast. At its heart, this is a love story told from the perspective of two sisters, and female readers, especially, will find much to relate to in their relationship. Largely because of the prevalent humor, the book manages to be moving without morbid, even when Maddie‘s illness takes a turn for the worse and Olivia‘s movie project looks dismal at best.
It‘s inevitable, particularly given Robinson‘s connections, that this story will make it to the big screen in the near future, but do yourself a favor and read the book first.