My book club chose this book for our next month’s reading selection. I’m not a big fan of biography or nonfiction by people who’ve just emerged from an adventure–I feel that they don’t spend enough time introspecting on what’s happened (though the events themselves may be fresher in memory). After reading this book, I remember why I don’t like this genre.
First, I need to separate this review into two parts: content and style. Let’s talk content first. Dr. Jerri Nielson, an ER doctor, has gone through an acrimonious divorce and lost her adolescent children to her abusive ex-husband in the process. Living iwth her parents and finding no purpose in her life, she decides to take a chance on a one-year stint in Antarctica as a doctor for the South Pole station. The novel chronicles her life over the next year as she adjusts to a new lifestyle, new friends, and a new (extremely harsh) environment. And then, several months into her journey, she discovers a worrisome lump on her breast that becomes large and increasingly painful. With only the most primitive and inadequate equipment and a tenuous internet link to the outside world, Nielson scrambles to diagnose herself–it ends up being cancer. Now, her trip adds another layer of urgency, as she’s stuck on the South Pole for several months and determined to survive until she can be airlifted to a hospital for radiation and chemotherapy. It’s a compelling story, made more engaging by the personal emails sent between her family, her doctors, and her friends.
Style is another matter altogether. Dr. Nielson’s initial chapters were really difficult for me to get through. How important was her divorce and loss of her children to this narrative? Why did I, a third-party, need to know her family’s dirty laundry? Why was it told in chronological order? These and many other writing choices drove me up the wall. There’s an interesting way to do memoir, and a non-interesting way to do memoir, and sadly, Nielson took the latter approach. It’s a compelling and unusual story that could have done with more thought to style and a less passive-aggressive writing voice.
One more thing, and please forgive the judginess that is surely emerging from me: WHY DID SHE LET HER EX TAKE THE KIDS???? I am sorry, I don’t care if my kids would have hated me, but if he had a violent history, if he had already beaten his sons in front of her, would he not continue to do so? I was really angry at her mousy, passive explanation about that. No f**king way would I let an abusive ex-partner snatch custody of my children because I didn’t want them to be “hurt” by the custody battle in court. If it’s their physical safety, I fight for their physical safety, no matter if they hate me. Ugh. I’m done.