With Maddie’s high school graduation behind her, she and her friends make lists of loose ends they want to wrap up before leaving for college in the fall. When Maddie’s Manhattan grandma, Astrid, announces she’s terminally ill and is taking the family on a “death with dignity” cruise, Maddie’s summer plans take a turn. Maddie has never dealt with death well, but now she’s facing the loss of her closest confidante. As the trip unfolds with one exotic destination after another, she rediscovers family connections, falls in love, and braces herself for the most difficult grief she’s ever experienced.
I really can’t decide if I liked this book or not. I felt like the writing was pretty solid. The characters were well-developed. The plot made sense, and the emotional situations deeply moved me. One of the issues Maddie faces is that her anxiety manifests itself in her body in the form of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. There are a couple of comments about her ruining thong underwear because of her condition, and she mentions feeling an upset stomach now and then, but it doesn’t overtake the story. I’m not sure it was perfectly integrated into the story, but I really liked the concept of including a character with this issue. I also loved the family saying about snow globe moments and how that tied in with other parts of the story.
My biggest hurdle with the story was in the form of a moral dilemma. I’ll include more explicit information in the spoiler section at the end of my review. I have really mixed feelings about this issue and I think maybe it would have been an easier read for me if at least some character had expressed the doubts and concerns that I felt, and there had been more dialogue about the choices the characters were making. Instead, I kind of felt like I was supposed to automatically approach the issue the same way the characters did, and the fact that I did not left me out of sync with the rest of the novel.
Maddie graduates high school without losing her virginity, not for lack of trying. She relates a brief incident in which she and her boyfriend have a failed attempt at sex. Later, she begins seeing a boy and they eventually have sex. No details about her exchanges with this boy, but they do make a point to be together frequently.
Before the cruise, Maddie’s grandmother introduces her wealthy upper class, white family to “the love of her life,” a black Jamaican man. Some family members have a difficult time accepting this relationship. There’s a brief discussion later about how Astrid was against her daughter marrying a Jewish man at first. And how coming to understand that her son was gay was also a difficult transition for her, though now both her son and her son’s husband have close and loving relationships with her.
Maddie’s cousin is a pretty promiscuous girl. At one point she relates a drama about the size of her boyfriend’s penis, and soon everyone in the family knows about it. Maddie also discusses this topic with her boyfriend. In one part of the trip, Maddie walks in on her cousin having sex with an unknown man.
There are some comments about Maddie’s grandma’s VHS porn collection and Maddie’s curiosity over whether her grandma and her lover are having sex. Her entire family is pretty open about these things.
Maddie has a short conversation with a friend about whether or not they believe in heaven or afterlife. Her friend expresses a belief that the dead sort of watch over us and communicate with us through benevolent signs. At Wishwell island, patients are offered some spiritual counseling. Maddie’s family doesn’t seem to participate. At one point, Maddie discusses her earlier obsession with the Holocaust, inspired by the discovery of her Jewish heritage.
Maddie’s brother is described as being a stoner. He, Maddie and some others gather in a hot tub to share a joint. Patients aboard the Wishwell use marijuana to manage pain.
Maddie’s mom is an alcoholic, and her drunken behavior causes some embarrassment to Maddie and her family. Maddie doesn’t drink, but her cousin and other teen characters do. (In some of the international settings, the legal drinking age is 18, so they’re probably not breaking any laws there.) More than one character gets drunk and commits some behavior later regretted.
As a part of the cruise, patients have an opportunity to say goodbye to their families and participate in an assisted suicide. I had a lot of mixed feelings about this issue, and overall I think Firestone tried to show some different angles. One character, a young mom, decides the assisted suicide isn’t the best outcome for her, and that she should spend all the remaining minutes she has with her family instead.
I’m not sure what my personal choices would be were I faced with a terrible, fatal illness, so I don’t want to be judgmental. I know that I have a really difficult time with the idea that suicide somehow becomes this courageous choice for someone terminally ill. I really struggled with this issue through every page of the book.