A memoir, both touching and painful

By Clea Simon
August 23, 2010

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If it’s commonly believed that the divine laughs at our plans, Amy Boesky’s family hasn’t been in on the joke. The author, a professor of English at Boston College, begins her poignant new memoir, “What We Have,’’ with a complete blueprint for life. “In my family, it was all mapped out around age six or seven, you got glasses; around eighteen or nineteen, your wisdom teeth came out; and by age thirty-five, it was time to take out your ovaries.’’ With a family history of ovarian cancer this seemed a logical timetable.

As the author begins this memoir in her 32d year she’s a little behind schedule. Unlike her older sister, who married and had children early, she has only recently married, and her rush to pregnancy confuses both her friends and her new husband. “A baby will change everything,’’ he points out. “Are we really ready for that?’’ But Boesky hears her own accelerated biological clock ticking, and knows “it was time to seize the day.’’

Her reasoning is clear: We are treated to her regular doctor visits and understand her fixation on the various tests available at the time, the early ’90s. But it is difficult not to sympathize with her husband as she frets anxiously and obsessively over elements she cannot control. “Maybe,’’ he says, “you should talk about this with someone,’’ even as the writer posits, “I worry, therefore I am.’’

Soon, however, her concerns take on flesh. First, her younger sister loses a baby, a tragedy that makes her own pregnancy feel tentative. Then, amid the usual concerns of work and new motherhood, Boesky learns that her mother, who had a prophylactic hysterectomy years before, has early-stage breast cancer. “You worry and worry about wearing your seat belt . . . and then wham a meteor comes along,’’ says her mother, the “mixer of metaphors.’’

At the time, before the various “breast cancer genes’’ BRCA1 and BRCA2 were identified, this seemed like a comparatively benign disease, unrelated to the family curse. But as the cancer recurs, Boesky is drawn into the real world of uncertainty. Raising her baby, she watches her mother decline in a series of poignant scenes that illustrate just how fragile life is. It’s a familiar story if a horrible one of human endurance, detailing the progression of day-to-day growth alongside day-to-day loss.

While Boesky certainly has a lot of material from which to draw, the strength of this memoir isn’t so much its subject matter as its specificity. Chronicling her mother’s decline, Boesky is unsparing, noting her own reluctance to look at the woman who had grown so thin, “I could see the veins on the side of her neck.’’ In precise prose, she pins down the conflicts within herself as she tries to be funny for her mother, yet feels like crying. When she realizes that she is pregnant again, and that her mother will likely never meet her second child, their shared grief is palpable.

As moving as this memoir is, it isn’t flawless. Boesky’s habit of referring to her grandmother, whom she never met, as Sylvia, is confusing, and a recurring theme about the history of timepieces never comes to seem an essential part of the book. Likewise, a brief section told in her mother’s voice is off-putting. The justification is clear: “Maybe in the end you keep The Worst to yourself,’’ her mother concludes. But the change of voice is jarring, interrupting this work’s otherwise hypnotic flow.

These are minor flaws in an extremely moving work — a book that for all its raw revelations leaves the reader wanting more. As Boesky and her siblings learn of new genetic discoveries, including the BRCA genes, we want to push her into testing. We want to know more. But the Boesky who has undergone this particular trial by fire has her own choices to make and she has learned that none of them will give her control.

Clea Simon, author of six mysteries, most recently “Grey Matters’’ (Severn House), can be reached at

WHAT WE HAVE: One Family’s Inspiring Story About Love, Loss, and Survival By Amy Boesky

Gotham, 327 pp., $26