Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

The Perfection of Hope

by Elizabeth Simpson

It is a sad truth that it is only when we are pushed up against our own mortality that we itemize what is really important in our lives.

So it was with Elizabeth Simpson, an English teacher at Camosun College in Victoria, who, after surviving against poor odds in her fight against lung cancer, penned several articles about her experiences for The Globe and Mail. These true-life stories prompted Macfarlane Walter & Ross to commission a book. The result is The Perfection of Hope, in which Simpson tells not only her own story but the cancer stories of several friends and family members.

Simpson is a good writer and has a knack for showing both the importance and the fragility of hope for those facing terminal illnesses. While in hospital after discovering that her cancer had spread to the point that it was inoperable, Simpson called in to check her voice mail at work and was greeted by a voice programmed to tell her colleagues about her condition and that they “should visit soon if they planned to visit at all.”

Simpson has clearly done a lot of thinking about how we think about illness in the last part of the 20th century. She realizes that, unlike in times past, we have been so bombarded with medical information that we blame ourselves when we get sick. We are far more likely to think our malady has been caused by breathing in second-hand smoke – or not eating enough vegetables or whatever – than to accept that people just get sick sometimes.

Despite her insights, Simpson is still only dealing with a handful of stories and, at times, seems to be stretching to fill out 240 pages. At one point, she spends many pages describing a vacation in Italy and how she dealt with her illness there.

One of the difficulties with these kinds of books is that they speak to readers differently depending on one’s own health. For those facing AIDS or terminal cancer, stories of surviving against the odds are like water to the parched. But to the healthy, they are not as pertinent unless they tell us something new about dealing with critical sickness. Unfortunately, much of what Simpson has to say about the steps and the lessons of dealing with a life-threatening illness – the importance of hope and the necessity of living in the present – have been described eloquently before by many other writers, such as the world-renowned expert on death and dying, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.