The Very Last List of Vivian Walker by Megan Albany involved a lot of sniggering. Which is kinda weird given it’s about a woman who’s terminally ill with cancer with just months (or less) to live.
But it’s the no-holds barred approach to death and dying Albany – via Vivian – that’s both shocking and smile-inducing. Albany’s writing is sassy and chock-full of snark rather than poignancy. It’s all delivered through Vivian’s voice. And Vivian’s dry sense of humour is certainly a blessing because…. well… (hmmm…. how to put this?) she’s actually a bit of a bitch.
The Very Last List of Vivian Walker
by Megan Albany
Published by Hachette Australia
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: General Fiction, Humour
Vivian Walker's life is exceptionally ordinary. Average husband, check. Darling son, check. Refrigerator in a state of permanent disarray, check. Everything is thoroughly and frustratingly routine, even being terminally ill.
After receiving her diagnosis, Viv's family won't let her lift a finger . . . for at least a week. But once the novelty wears off, she's lucky to get a cup of tea for her trouble. In preparation for D-day, self-professed control freak Viv has made a list of essential things to do, such as decluttering the playroom and preparing her taxes. She doesn't expect to become spiritually enlightened or have any outlandish last-minute successes. All she wants is to finish her unfinished business.
As her final days unfold, Viv realises her life has become a love letter to the mundane but she still manages to keep her wicked sense of humour and cynical take on life unapologetically intact.
I was tempted to read other reviews or commentaries about the book but never do so until I’ve written my own review lest I be inadvertently influenced. But, it seemed obvious that Vivian isn’t very nice so I’m not sure anyone would debate that. She comes across as quite toxic, though some may find her likeable… and she certainly has a best friend with a similar sense of humour and full of disdain for others.
Vivian’s selfish and scathingly judgemental but we also learn she’s had a difficult childhood and a challenging relationship with her mother and sister. I don’t mind a flawed protagonist and even a psychopathic one, but Viv is downright selfish and self-absorbed and she’s determined not to make anyone’s life any easier… with the exception of her son. It made it hard for me to care much about her (either way) though I did wait on some last minute redemption or self-reflection. Of course having said that it was nice – for a change – to not have a saint-like lead character facing death.
Vivian’s husband Clint narrates some chapters and he makes it clear he knows he’s a disappointment to his wife. I found it terribly sad that he feels so pathetic and it made me like Vivian even less as – though I know Clint shouldn’t feel responsible for his wife’s happiness or otherwise – it seems wrong to make someone else feel so bad about themselves, which Viv most certainly does.
The couple have been together ten years and I found myself wondering how they’d survived so long when she spends her life belittling and criticising Clint and he has to read Viv’s moods in order to know how he needs to act or respond.
When the waitress walks away, Viv gives me that look. It’s not indifference, it’s not frustration, she just hates everything about me right now. If we weren’t in a public place, I would be bracing myself for the onslaught. Instead she tightens her mouth, gets out her phone and puts her headphones into her ears. I know she is listening to Tony Robbins. He will calm her down and stop her wanting to blame me for everything that’s ever gone wrong in her life. It usually takes about fifteen minutes. pp 11-12
Albany is incredibly blunt here – again through Vivian – whose approach to her looming death is refreshingly frank and without sentimentality. When we meet her she’s in list-making mode though grumpy that she finds herself trying to prepare things for her death.
Things on her list rarely get completed. Each chapter is titled and themed by one of the actions on a list which is more of an episodic way of moving through an undefined period of time. In some ways it could have been a memoir. I’m not a fan of non-fiction but brief anecdotes about ‘events’ I can certainly deal with, particularly when they’re as droll and witty as Albany’s words.
Of course… the end comes and I bawled my way through some of the final chapters. Albany’s not overly sentimental though. Her (or Vivian’s) pragmatism continues and so this never really reached peak devastation or wistful poignancy, rather she underplays ‘the end’.
I very much enjoyed this book and it’s certainly an appealing read. It’s understated rather than heart-wrenching. I didn’t engage enough with Vivian to be devastated at what was to come (though that might have been Albany’s plans) but the writing is clever. It’s smart and witty and takes on a complicated subject with levity and solemnity at the same time.
The Very Last List of Vivian Walker by Megan Albany was published in Australia by Hachette and is now available.
I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.