I hadn’t requested this book when it was first offered as I think I assumed it was a romance novel or about babies / childbirth. Both of which are kinda sore points for me much of the time.
It wasn’t until later I discovered it was about the recipient of a heart transplant and the wife of her possible donor. It’s a subject I know a little about as my father had a heart transplant (in December 2000) when he was 61, and it gave him 11 additional years with us until he passed away in late October 2011.
The Gift of Life
by Josephine Moon
Published by Penguin Random House Australia
on April 2nd 2019
Source: Penguin Random House Australia
Genres: General Fiction, Women's Fiction
Gabby McPhee is the owner of The Tin Man, a chic new cafe and coffee roasting house in Melbourne. The struggles of her recent heart transplant are behind her and life is looking up - until a mysterious customer appears in the cafe, convinced that Gabby has her deceased husband's heart beating inside her chest.
Krystal Arthur is a bereaved widow, struggling to hold herself and her two young boys together since Evan's death, and plagued by unanswered questions. Why was her husband in another city the night he died? And why won't his spirit rest?
Krystal is convinced that Gabby holds the clues she needs to move towards a brighter future. Gabby needs Krystal to help her let go of her troubled past. The two women must come together to try to unlock the secrets in Evan's heart in order to set free their own.
I know Moon was inspired by the story of someone who adopted habits of her donor and talked to others about that experience, but it wasn’t like that with dad. He changed, but I think that’s inevitable. I think something he initially grappled with (though it improved with over time) was the notion of guilt. I guess it’s even more than survivor’s guilt… you just didn’t ‘survive’, you lived because someone else died.
One of the bookclub questions at the end of the novel is centred around the notion of donor recipients feeling a sense of ‘duty’, like they have to live their best possible life, given they’ve been given a second chance. Worse still, perhaps is the sense they need to live the lives of two people.
I think the psychology around transplants and the impact it has on donors and recipients is probably something we don’t consider enough.
My father wasn’t overly obsessive about his donor. We wrote to the donor’s family not long after the transplant and think we had the option of writing again later.
The book’s right, anonymity is a big thing for all sorts of reasons. I still remember the transplant coordinator sharing anecdotes – some men struggled if they knew they’d been given a female’s organs, and vice versa. Or those of people from another culture or race. Or someone much older or younger.
I know our experience is somewhat limited but I’m not sure about the muscle memory thing or inheriting habits from the donor.
Here, of course, it’s central to the plot – that Gabby has vague memories of her donor and exhibits their tendencies and traits.
There’s an interesting theme around family and friendships here and we have two very different examples via Gabby and her close family and Krystal who’s really only got a friend she made more recently. Single parenting and the pressure it involves is examined and I liked the reminder that ‘family’ can look very different for everyone – that it may involve friends or several generations.
I really enjoyed Gabby’s thought process and her consideration of how her illness has impacted her children and even her ex-husband. And of course, there’s the constant threat hanging over her of her body rejecting the organ or getting an infection. In my dad’s case the drugs he was on to suppress his immune system (ie. so his body didn’t reject the heart) meant he was susceptible to things he might not otherwise have been and he died of a type of skin cancer.
Gabby is really likeable, as is Krystal and the support cast. They’re complex characters facing real-life problems.
Moon obviously did a significant amount of research to write about organ donation but also the amount of detail about coffee making is amazing. I had no idea of the work that goes into making blends and ‘cupping’ and the like.
So this was a good read. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the direction the book took, with the element of mystery being introduced and I probably would have preferred the questions around Evan’s death have been a little less cryptic, giving Krystal closure without adding the extra plot arc.
The Gift of Life by Josephine Moon was published in Australia by Penguin (Michael Joseph) and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.
** Interestingly a Netflix TV show is about to be released featuring a similar theme. Chambers is about a young (poor) teenager who receives the heart of a girl from a wealthy family and I gather starts to exhibit traits of her donor. Added to the fun seems to be the level of attention the donor family is now paying to the girl carrying their daughter’s heart. **