I should have known that I would have complicated feelings about A Storied Life by Leigh Kramer, but for some reason, it didn’t cross my mind. You see, two-and-a-half years ago, I lost my beloved grandma to cancer. Unlike the grandma in this novel, she had been fighting for eight years before her body just couldn’t handle it anymore. But even though I had more time to grapple with losing her and even though I never really saw her lose sense of who she was, it was still incredibly hard to read this novel and remember the last month of my grandma’s life – the surgery that removed one of her lungs, the recovery, the pneumonia, and then the week she spent on life support where the whole family had to come to terms with losing her.
When this novel begins, Olivia learns that her grandma, and the only person in her large family who truly gets her, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has just months to live. To top it all off, Olivia is named her Power of Attorney for Healthcare, which means she’ll be the one to make all of her grandma’s medical decisions once Gram no longer has the ability to do so. It sparks an outrage in her family because Olivia is the “black sheep” in a sense. While everyone else works at the family bank, she owns an art gallery. And because of this act of defiance, she is a bit ostracized in her family. Her uncles don’t really like her and her cousins don’t really understand her. Her only saving grace in her family is her grandma, who has always encouraged her passion for painting and art in general.
Throughout the novel, we see the cracks in her family dynamic, from an uncle who doesn’t believe she can handle being a Power of Attorney to an aunt who gossips about Olivia’s decisions to everyone who will listen. And we also see how Olivia handles it all. She’s not used to having such an influential role in the family, but she handles it with grace and gumption because she cares for her grandma deeply and wants her to have the best care in the last months of her life.
And, don’t worry, this novel is not all about the sad and heart-wrenching nature of watching a loved one die. There’s also a sweet love story intertwined, between Olivia and a new artist who comes to her gallery to have his work shown, Reagan. The scenes between Olivia and Reagan were some of my favorites, from Olivia taking him to a Chicago White Sox game to Reagan lovingly coercing her to paint again. But there is a complicated nature to their relationship because of what Olivia is going through. The timing is all wrong for their relationship, and I loved the way the author explored that idea: maybe timing isn’t everything when it comes to relationships. Maybe when you find the right person, your person, the timing doesn’t matter.
All in all, I was seriously impressed by this debut novel and I found the writing to be exquisite. As an aspiring writer myself, I found myself highlighting different passages and loving the way she strung together sentences. It wasn’t in an over-the-top, trying-too-hard-to-be-literary way. It was in a beautiful, I-wish-I-could-write-like-this-ughhhhhh way. It’s a book that will appeal to those who love a good fiction novel that explores deep issues of the human condition, most especially death and grief.
And because I want to be honest in my review, I will say that it felt like the book slightly fell apart near the end. There was a scene involving Olivia and Reagan that didn’t totally ring true to life for me, and it felt a little forced. As if the author wanted to sneak in a “dark moment” with their romance when there really wasn’t a reason for that at all. Another issue I had was with some of the scenes involving Olivia and her family because there were some confrontations that felt a little over the top. Now look, I understand complicated family dynamics more than anyone. I do not have a strong relationship with many of my extended family members and often feel like a “black sheep” among them, and I’m fine with that. I don’t need a “come-to-Jesus” moment with them; it is what it is. And I think that’s the way it is for a lot of families and that’s okay. The ending of this novel tried a little too hard to tie up every loose end and making everything a bit too neat, when that’s not how life works at all. There’s a messiness to life and family that could have been explored, and I was a bit let down that it wasn’t.
However, even with those missteps, I still found this book to be an altogether fascinating read and one I would recommend to those who enjoy a good fiction novel that has a serious bend to it. I found Olivia to be a great character to follow, and I truly enjoyed her and could relate to the bond between her and her grandma.
“Live your own story. Make every moment count.”
Olivia Frasier grew up under the guidance of her grandmother’s mantra: “Live a storied life.” The oft-repeated words gave her the courage to pursue art instead of working at the family bank until a mistake made in college altered the course of her life. Now, no one knows Olivia still paints. Not her friends. Not her staff at the art gallery. Certainly not her family.
She can ignore the twinge of unease, the regret that surfaces when Gram’s mantra comes to mind, the question of whether this is all life has to offer.
When Gram announces she has terminal cancer—and names Olivia as her Power of Attorney for Healthcare—Olivia is thrust in to the world of hospice and dying wishes. Olivia may be the family’s black sheep but she is determined to see Gram through this, no matter the cost.
Faced with losing the one person on her side, Olivia clings to the knowledge that Gram’s death will finally allow her to walk away from the family. And yet Gram is determined to impart one last lesson: let go of the past so she can live the life she’s meant to lead.
When Reagan walks into her art gallery, the timing couldn’t be worse. He’s everything Olivia ever dreamed of wanting but she has learned to settle for less when it comes to her relationships and career. At what point does owning your story outweigh the potential hurt?
Weaving together grief and beauty, humor and romance, A Storied Life will make you rethink life, love, and loss.
I received a copy of this novel for free from the author in exchange for an honest review. All words and opinions, unless otherwise stated, are my own.
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