Don't let the cover of Pamela Ribon's new novel, "You Take It From Here," fool you: the picture may literally be painted of two women seemingly casually strolling through a small, sleepy town, but the story that unfolds is anything but just another chick lit beach read. The novel starts off with an apology-- one that comes from narrator Danielle "Danny" Meyers in the form of a letter to a young girl named Jenny. She knows Jenny has been (perhaps irrationally) angry with her for years, and she wants the chance to explain the way things really went down-- the secrets that were kept from the child at the time. It is a clever device that allows Ribon to bring her readers directly into the action and emotion, writing "you" in the subsequent chapters and stabbing us directly in our hearts each and every time. Ribon has undoubtedly made you laugh in the past-- on Television without Pity, her own blog Pamie, or the sadly short-lived Samantha Who? starring Christina Applegate-- but with "You Take It From Here," she will make you cry. Buckets.
The perfectly titled "You Take It From Here" starts out innocently enough: Danny heads back to her childhood hometown to pick up her BFF affectionately nicknamed "Smidge" before they embark on their yearly adventure together. In the past they have gone to exotic beaches or traveled to foreign continents. This time, though, Smidge instructs her to drive to just another Southern state and take a photo of her in front of the world's largest chair. It's goofy, but it's Danny's clue that things are not right. As it turns out, Smidge has lung cancer. Well, she had it a few years back; she beat it; but her remission was not permanent, and it has returned, metastasized, and will take her life sometime within the year. And she has one great adventure she needs Danny to promise to see out: taking it from here-- with the "it" being her life.
Smidge is a wife and a mother, and she doesn't want her family to dissolve in her absence, so she makes Danny swear that she won't tell anyone about the cancer and will instead stay with her to learn the ins and outs of her household so she can calmly slip into place after she has passed away. It's kind of an unreasonable, insane request-- one that seems to be born from the stages of grief at facing one's own mortality-- but Danny agrees. In part she may be placating-- in part she may be feeling guilty over how she wasn't as there for Smidge as she should have been with the first round of cancer-- but Danny does it. Even when she shouldn't.
The set up for Ribon's novel is a little quirky, but the women explored are extremely rich. Smidge is a big, loud, at times bullying personality. She tells it like it is, and despite her use of "y'all," seems like she, not Danny, was the one who spent a few years living in New York City. She has an abrasive, almost hardened way with her loved ones, and it's a bit of a shame we don't get to meet her before the cancer has already started corroding her. It's clear by the end of the novel she was doing attempting to push some specific people away-- and to compartmentalize those in her life-- so they don't get hurt later, but it's also clear that she has always been an acquired taste, and I couldn't help but wonder how much of that personality trait is just a reaction to her diagnosis.
Smidge's final request to Danny is a selfish one: she effectively wants Danny to give up everything about who she is and what her life has become-- including the mundane details, like how she makes a bed and how often she goes to church-- so that a version of Smidge can live on. The two joke that if Danny doesn't do it right, Smidge will "haunchoo" (haunt you), but there is something very somber about the fact that a woman is choosing not to fight her disease but still trying to live on potentially forever through her friend. There are little to no questions raised about how it would affect Danny-- emotionally or even publicly, when all of a sudden the doting best friend was trying to move in on the grieving husband. Cancer causes a lot of people to overlook a lot of things; he or she who has been diagnosed often becomes a saint in everyone else's eyes.
But in truth, it is Danny who is the saint, the selfless one, especially in Smidge's final final days. I'm not sure if Ribon has ever lost someone to cancer-- I know her mother is still with her, as evidenced by Tweets that prove she should have been the one given a sitcom!-- or if she just did a ton of research, but she has beautifully mastered the complexities to relationships stricken by disease. We are never greater tested than when someone close to us is going through something horrendous because it is then (a point Ribon eloquently makes within her pages) that our own true colors come out. "You Take It From Here" raises the tough, introspective questions we hope we never have to actually answer in our own lives: Can we keep the "I" out of thinking or speaking about our friend's situation? Can we keep her secrets, even when we know it is wrong, simply because they are not our own secrets to tell? How long can we ignore blatant signs of distress before we stand up and say 'I'm here for you' in whatever way we think will go over best? Can you sit with pain, yours or hers, without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it?
Ribon has written a new kind of buddy tale-- one that could easily be adapted for the big screen. Smidge and Danny are the life force of "You Take It From Here," and if you combined them, the way Smidge is trying to do in her death, you may actually have one perfect protagonist. If it was just the two of them in life, it wouldn't be so hard for Smidge to just retreat and die quietly-- the way you often hear dogs or cats do by going out to the garage to be alone. But there are other key players around them-- ones who factor into Smidge's life greatly and should also factor into this part of her journey. Smidge's husband Henry or teenage daughter Jenny (the one to whom Danny is writing this epic of a letter) or even old pal Tucker, who strikes up a new flirtation with Danny once she's back in town, are all unfinished works who get pushed aside, despite being deeply affected by Smidge's secret-- while she's keeping it and long after it's told too late.
I admit I almost couldn't finish the novel; it hit just too close to home. I knew Smidge [spoiler alert!] wasn't going to have a miraculous recovery at the end, and I wanted to learn if the purpose of the letter was because Danny, too, was now sick and trying to make some amends, but she was being asked to do some new things I was once asked to do and at which I failed. It stung, and it will sit with me-- as it will you, even if you have no firsthand experience with cancer so close in your own family-- for a good, long, uncomfortable while.
"You Take It From Here" will be released on July 3rd 2012. Though I highly recommend you run out and buy it immediately, I suggest you wait until after the celebratory holiday weekend to dive in. Otherwise you will be blubbering over your BBQ.