Nina Riggs wrote The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying as she was being treated for stage four breast cancer, the kind that’s become only treatable, not curable. During the same time, Nina was saying goodbye to her mother, who had the same disease and prognosis. That gives you an idea of what to expect from this book.
But expectations are only part of reality, and Riggs finds many bright and funny spots in the everyday moments of her life. She and her husband are parenting two young boys, and as boys will, they do seriously goofy stuff. It helps balance the heartbreak of thinking about leaving them behind.
Her kids are certainly main characters, with emphasis on character, and they pulled on more of my heartstrings than anything else. Riggs may be her family’s glue, but the boys are the sparkle.
Riggs gives us a mother’s perspective on life, family, love, and death. She unflinchingly tells what it’s like to be a woman undergoing mastectomy at 38, how it affects her marriage and femininity. And what happens when the new, adorable dog falls in love with the breast form.
Ginny, one of Nina’s close friends, is also battling cancer, although as I write the word “battling” I remember Riggs doesn’t use war metaphors. Together they imagine the life of a woman whose scooter is parked outside a motel they pass between home and the cancer center. They develop such creative details that it’s practically a sub-plot.
Riggs’ close friend Tita and her husband are there for social events, late-night emergency calls, and everything in between. These relationships are the foil for Riggs’ family, contrasting two radically different lives.
Nina Riggs earned an MFA in poetry, and it shows in her writing. The chapters are mostly short, and her language is melodic and precise. She chooses words carefully, and for maximum impact. Just as you’re breezing through a boy-centered story, Riggs gut punches you with treatment details. It’s a delicate balance, and is perfectly executed.