Books by and about cancer patients and survivors abound, and I have read my fair share in the last year and a half. Most of these types of books that I have read have been biographies or autobiographies. And that makes sense, because I wouldn’t imagine that the market for fictional accounts of cancer patients is a very big one.
A few weeks ago I received an e-mail asking me if I would consider reading just such a book and posting a review on my blog. I’ve received these kinds of requests before and have always enjoyed reading and reviewing them, as well as getting the free books. When I opened this particular e-mail, though, I hesitated to accept right away.
The e-mail contained a description of the book I was being asked to read, and summarized the fictional account of a terrifying day in the life of a breast cancer patient. I didn’t think I really wanted to read anything like that and I had misgivings about whether or not an author could truly capture the experience and feelings of someone in the middle of breast cancer treatments. The one thing that convinced me that this book might be worth reading was the fact that it was written by a breast cancer survivor, Linda Merlino. So I said yes.
Belly of the Whale is told from the first person point of view of Hudson Catalina, a young mother and wife who is in the middle of breast cancer treatments. The story is basically a day in her life, complete with her family leaving for work and school in the morning followed by her trip to a chemotherapy treatment. On this particular day, a snow storm hits the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts and essentially shuts it down. Catalina returns home after her chemo treatment and then decides to drive in the snow storm to a small, local grocery store. While she is there, the store is robbed and she finds herself held hostage with other employees by the mentally unstable and frightening burglar.
Merlino’s writing captures much about the experience of cancer. She describes the main character’s feelings of hopelessness and anger in the face of her diagnosis. She talks about the difficulty of constantly having to reassure everyone else in your life when you are the one who is sick. She writes about a chemotherapy treatment as only someone who has been there can. She also depicts Catalina’s understandable fear in the face of the events that take place in the grocery store. The story manages to convey the myriad emotions of a breast cancer patient as well as the sense of terror a hostage in a dangerous situation might feel. In addition, the characters are realistic and finely drawn. Merlino has a talent for bringing her characters to life in a way that makes many of them seem like your neighbor down the street.
I felt that the first half of the book was slow in places and that it was filled with more detail about Catalina’s day than was necessary to develop her character. I also found myself frequently frustrated with the negativity of her attitude. Merlino never tells us the stage of Catalina’s cancer, nor does she give the reader a prognosis other than Catalina’s own self-prognosis of imminent death. While a breast cancer diagnosis is terrifying and the treatment is emotionally and physically exhausting, in so many cases it is also beatable. We have the technology and tools to take it down in most cases, so it was difficult for me to accept the depths of Catalina’s misery in the face of her diagnosis and treatments. If I knew someone going through cancer treatments who acted out the way that she does, I would feel obligated to reprimand her and scold her back into reality.
While I am impressed with Merlino’s writing and storytelling ability, I have to admit that I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone going through cancer treatments. I think it would be difficult to read about Catalina’s reaction to her cancer when you are struggling to stay positive about your own situation. If you have waged and won your own battle with cancer, however, or if you know someone who has, you may just find something of your own struggle in the pages of Belly of the Whale.