Not Your Typical Disease Memoir

I’ve never met Mary Elizabeth Williams, but I’m a fan. I found her the way people do these days. A friend who’s done her time with cancer started retweeting things by various members of the cancer club, and before long I was following @embeedub myself. I’ve enjoyed some of her media commentary in Salon, but I became a committed reader when she blogged about the SNAP Challenge: the week she fed her family on just $5 per person per day—the amount allotted to needy families under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). I admired the social justice attitude, but as a foodie, I was drawn to the recipes.

So it makes sense I would preorder Williams’ new book, A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles: A True Story of Love, Science, and Cancer and read it as soon as I could. In addition, Williams’ brand of cancer is melanoma, and although my story is much less harrowing, I’ve had my own brush with the black menace.

All of which is to say this review could never be entirely unbiased. At the same time, whatever bias there might be was acquired honestly. Williams is not a friend or family member, nor someone to whom I owe money. She’s just a writer whose stuff I’ve enjoyed.

To cut to the chase, it’s a wonderful book. There are lots of great disease memoirs. (If you want to have your heart broken, I recommend Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home.) But Williams’ book is different in some important ways.

1. There’s no bullshit.

Williams is of the clear-eyed “don’t-call-me-a-survivor” school of cancer. At various points in the book she wears a “FUCK CANCER” t-shirt to her doctor’s appointments. She has a tremendous sense of humor — which is a plus when you are diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma — but she is realistic enough to know that cancer is no fairytale. There is no hidden upside to a terminal disease diagnosis.

2. God doesn’t get the credit.

On a blank page ahead of the first chapter of the book Williams offers just three words and a little punctuation: SPOILER: I lived.

She reveals the most important plot point before she even gets started, but nothing in the following three hundred pages attributes that miraculous outcome to God. If I were writing this memoir, that might not be so remarkable, but Williams is a Christian who prays every day. Despite having God available to her as a credible — to some, at least — cause, she makes it very clear that science and her doctors saved her life, not a supernatural entity that inexplicably chose her over so many other worthy candidates. At one point she writes, “I don’t want a God who plays favorites.”

3. It’s a science book.

A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles is a bit of a Trojan horse. On the one hand, it is a beautifully written saga of a family plunged into an adventure they would never have chosen. The tale takes many unexpected turns, and there are old friends and new friends who come along for the ride. It would be hard to read this book without getting emotional — I cried at several points — but the book is also an important piece of science journalism.

Williams’ life was saved by the nascent science of immunotherapy. After having the terrible luck of turning up with Stage 4 melanoma, she had the good fortune to be living a subway ride away from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and to be selected for what turned out to be a very successful clinical trial. The miracles in this book are all scientific, and at several points Williams stops the flow of the story to provide the necessary science background. You will learn a lot about the latest developments in cancer research, but you will be so caught up in the story that you won’t feel like you’re going to school.

4. There’s a lot of love.

This may not seem like a distinguishing factor, but by the time Williams stirs in ingredients 1.-3. above, the varieties of love that appear in A Series have a unique poignancy. There are few writers less prone to illusion than Mary Elizabeth Williams. She is tough-minded and brutally critical when she needs to be. But, at bottom, she’s a lover not a fighter. She has already documented the exceptional story of her marriage in a New York Times Modern Love piece, and the Mary Elizabeth Williams who emerges in A Series is a woman with an enormous heart. Someone who is there in sickness and in health and who is not afraid to love and care about people, even when doing so leaves her vulnerable to loss. As it always does.

This is a great book. You don’t have to have cancer to enjoy it.