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In These Novels, Women With Cancer Decide to Ditch the People-Pleasing

Category: Art & Culture,Books

Feeling responsible for other people’s happiness makes it exhausting for Elisabeth to even communicate with her family. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a novel that captures the emotional labor of people-pleasing language quite so well. When Coco talks to Elisabeth about death, Elisabeth tries to brighten the mood with “light words” like “just a sec, a sandwich, abracadabra.” There’s a funny moment where Elisabeth notices that her husband, during drunken sex, speaks only in aaba rhyme schemes. Later he confesses to an affair, and she can’t help internalizing the language he prefers, her shock and grief unfolding in an aaba scheme in her mind.

Even as the book reaches its inevitable conclusion, Elisabeth talks to herself in painfully upbeat language, using phrases like whoops-a-daisy! as she approaches her own death. Droll and horrific and incredibly moving, the ending makes you feel the full weight of those “light words.”

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In “The Bus on Thursday,” a comedic horror novel by the Australian writer Shirley Barrett, the narrator is enraged by the burden of putting others at ease. From the moment Eleanor Mellett gets her first mammogram, she’s criticized for not being “relaxed enough.” By the time she’s gone through a mastectomy and joined a support group, she’s crafting furious blog posts about the pressure to remain optimistic: “If they are nudging you toward the scrapbooking table, then it is basically code for, ‘You will die soon, so quick! Throw some photos in an album as a keepsake for your loved ones. Make sure you are smiling in these photos and have lots of hair. Decorate with butterfly stickers and inspirational quotes about dancing like nobody’s watching, etc.’”

The whole novel is written in what Eleanor calls “funny-angry” blog posts, which might be why the jacket copy pitches the book as “‘Bridget Jones’ meets ‘The Exorcist.’” But it’s closer to a fun, campy Tim Burton movie. Hoping for a fresh start during recovery, Eleanor takes a job at a school in Talbingo, a remote Australian town with no cellphone reception (uh oh) where a beloved teacher has disappeared. Here, she encounters a friar who looks like a praying mantis, a vacuum cleaner salesman who’s almost supernaturally attractive, a mysterious 1960s power station, a paranormal bus, and a severed hand that appears to have a life of its own. If that sounds surreal, well, so does the experience of having cancer.

Barrett also works as a screenwriter and filmmaker, so it’s no surprise that she’s a masterly world-builder. As Talbingo becomes more and more vivid, Eleanor gets increasingly unhinged, to the point where she’s actively testing the limits of our sympathy. One of the funniest moments finds her giving a graphic talk about death to children; one of the most unsettling ones involves a child, too, but it’s probably best left unspoiled here. Throughout the book, you’ll be forgiven for wondering if Eleanor is a survivor in the crazy-making world of cancer recovery — or if she’s just crazy.

There are no definitive answers in the sure-to-be-polarizing ending, which might leave some puzzled about the larger points that Barrett is trying to make. When I first finished “The Bus on Thursday,” I threw it down in frustration, only to pick it back up and reread the final pages. Now, I wonder if the lack of some profound ending is deliberate. “This is the problem with having cancer: Everyone expects you to have mysteriously acquired some kind of wisdom out of the experience, and if you haven’t, then it’s a personal failing,” Eleanor writes early in the book. Maybe Barrett doesn’t owe us any revelations beyond this one: Don’t trust a cancer novel that can be wrapped up neatly with butterfly stickers and inspirational quotes.


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