THE QUICKEST WAY to describe this book is to call it a memoir about having and being treated for breast cancer, but unfortunately that description gives you next to no idea of what the book is actually like.
"I do not want to tell the story of cancer in the way I have been taught to tell it," Boyer declares, and she succeeds. Memoirs about illness do seem to have only a few default settings; they are going to be about resilience, persistence, holding onto hope, learning what is really important, cherishing the present moment...all excellent qualities, needless to say. Boyer simply isn't interested in any of that. No tributes to the doctors and nurses who worked with her, nor to friends and family, nothing about lessons learned or values affirmed. The book is unsentimental to the point of astringency. Unlikely to be tapped by Oprah.
If Boyer is not interested in any of the usual ingredients of an illness memoir, what is she interested in? The literary record of illness, for one thing. I had never heard of Aelius Aristides, for instance, but he sounds worth reading, and I did not know that Frances Burney, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Harriet Martineau had all written vividly of being ill.
She is also interested in writing about the horrors of being a patient in the time of late capitalism:
You can't drive yourself home the same day you have had a double mastectomy of course, whimpering in pain, unable to use your arms, with four drainage bags hanging from your torso, delirious from anesthesia and barely able to walk. You are not supposed to be alone when you get home, either. But no one really asks how you manage it once you are forced out of the surgery center--who, if anyone, you have to care for you, what sacrifices these caretakers might have to make or the support they require.
For another thing, she is interested in letting you know exactly what is involved in her treatment, as in "the brain damage from chemotherapy is cumulative and unpredictable," or "a nurse in a hazmat suit inserts a large needle into my plastic subdermal port."
And, in her case, the treatment works: between the double mastectomy and the drugs, "the cancer is gone." You may be expecting Boyer to break out the familiar tropes at this point. Nope.
With that news, I am like a baby being born into the hands of a body made only of the grand debt of love and rage, and if I live another forty-one years to avenge what happened it still won't be enough.