The Life List ~ Lori Nelson Spielman

  • Title: The Life List
  • Author: Lori Nelson Spielman
  • Genre: Mainstream, Women’s fiction
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 3 out of 5

Description: In this utterly charming debut — one woman sets out to complete her old list of childhood goals, and finds that her lifelong dreams lead her down a path she never expects.

1. Go to Paris
2. Perform live, on a super big stage
3. Have a baby, maybe two
4. Fall in love

Brett Bohlinger has forgotten all about the list of life goals she’d written as a naïve teenager. In fact, at thirty-four, Brett seems to have it all—a plum job at her family’s multimillion-dollar company and a spacious loft with her irresistibly handsome boyfriend. But when her beloved mother, Elizabeth, passes away, Brett’s world is turned upside down. Rather than simply naming her daughter the new CEO of Bohlinger Cosmetics, Elizabeth’s will comes with one big stipulation: Brett must fulfill the list of childhood dreams she made so long ago.
Grief-stricken, Brett can barely make sense of her mother’s decision. Some of her old hopes seem impossible. How can she possibly have a relationship with a father who died seven years ago? Other dreams (Be an awesome teacher!) would require her to reinvent her entire future. For each goal attempted, her mother has left behind a bittersweet letter, offering words of wisdom, warmth, and—just when Brett needs it—tough love.
As Brett struggles to complete her abandoned life list, one thing becomes clear: Sometimes life’s sweetest gifts can be found in the most unexpected places.

Review: Without a doubt, this book is a powerful work of fiction, stirring a bittersweet brew of emotions in its reader. Beautifully written, it tells a poignant story of a mother-daughter love transcending death. At least on the surface, it does, but when you dig deeper, you realize that something doesn’t jibe. Although at first glance, the book’s vibrations seem authentic, beneath the cosmetic layer, falsehood resides.

The novel starts, when Brett’s beloved mother, Elizabeth, dies from cancer. Stricken with grief, Brett arrives at her mother’s will reading, only to suffer a terrible shock. While her two brothers inherit millions, Brett inherits zilch. Or rather, her inheritance is delayed and conditional.

To become eligible, she must fulfill a life list, which she herself had compiled when she was 14. Making her life even more interesting, all the items on the list must be completed within one year. Otherwise, she won’t receive a dime. And, as the finishing touch, in her last, posthumous action, Elizabeth decreed that Brett must be fired from her marketing position with the family firm. Now, Brett has no income, no job, and her only consolation is the life list that reflects her mother’s love. Or does it?

Here, my view diverges from the author’s. I think love should include respect and acceptance. When you love someone, you grant her the rights to choose her own path and to make her own mistakes. You give advice, yes, but you don’t force complaisance, don’t foist your way of life on someone you love. You support unconditionally, whatever she chooses. Otherwise, it’s not love at all. When free choice is removed from the equation, it’s called tyranny.

In this regard, Elizabeth’s actions stink of tyranny. They evoke such notions as contempt and mockery, not love. Only someone who despises her daughter would include the item ‘fall in love’ as a prerequisite for inheritance. Within one year too. As if love would adhere to schedule.    

In the book, Elizabeth supposedly knew that her daughter was unhappy in her personal and professional life. She made her will into a weapon, serving one purpose: to steer her daughter into a different orbit, to enforce her happiness (what an oxymoron!). I don’t see love there. I see an autocratic woman who tries to control her daughter from beyond the grave.

Unaccountably, Brett allows it. She complies with her mother’s last wishes instead of doing the logical thing and contesting the will. The novel follows Brett, as she struggles to accomplish all the items on her prescribed list within her crazy deadline. After each goal is attained, Brett is allowed to read one of her mother’s letters, attached to that particular goal. All the letters are part of the narrative; they’re full of loving words, very teary, but they’re just words on paper. Why can’t Brett see that? Her millionaire mother left her penniless. If it’s not cruelty, what is? Why does Brett believe the words and not the deeds? Why does she continue with this impossible charade of her life list?

As I witnessed Brett’s frantic scrambling to appease a corpse, I sometimes got so angry on her behalf, I had to close the book and pace. My stomach knotted. I wanted to scream in frustration at the poor woman: Don’t be such a doormat! See through your mother’s machinations! Fight! Rebel! But she wouldn’t. Even though her mother was dead, Brett still remained the obedient, spineless daughter she has always been. And her love for her mother never diminished.

Of course, in real life, most sane persons in Brett’s position would also jump through hoops to get to their millions, but the author doesn’t want her reader to think that Brett is motivated by money. She writes Brett as an altruist, a goody-good with an infinite capacity for love. Every line of the novel’s marvelous prose thrums true, invokes a wide range of feelings, touches her reader’s heartstrings.  

I wanted to believe her but I couldn’t. It infuriated me that such a great writer would create such a lie. About love, no less. It wouldn’t be so bad, if the writer weren’t so good.


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