It seems macabre—to meet a woman in the final six weeks of her life to uncover a mystery. Who tried to kill her? But in “Six Weeks to Live” by Catherine McKenzie, it’s somehow not macabre at all but rather fascinating. She peels away the layers of Jennifer’s life as if it were an onion, layer by layer. Some layers are revealed by Jennifer herself, in first person narrative. Others are revealed by her three daughters, the triplets Aline, Emily, and Miranda.
We learn at the start that Jennifer has brain cancer, glioblastoma, a fast-growing cancer that will cause her death in approximately six weeks. Jennifer also learns, by going through her paperwork, that around a year previously, her blood work showed high levels of lead. The thing is, she doesn’t remember much about it even though the clinic says that when they wanted to do follow-up work, she told them not to because she was going to get a second opinion.
The more that Jennifer ponders her diagnoses and impending premature death, the more she is sure that her glioblastoma was caused by the lead poisoning, and that it was, in fact, poisoning. She believes that her husband, Jake, who has desperately wanted a divorce for over a year, decided that the only way to get it was to kill her. And thus Jennifer decides to investigate how she might have been poisoned.
As in any worthy mystery, we learn the facts slowly, over time, over the six weeks of life that Jennifer has left. We learn secrets about not only Jennifer, but her husband (still her husband because she wouldn’t give him a divorce) and their three daughters. We learn that the daughters are triplets, but two of the three are identical. Emily is the nonidentical triplet and looks like her mother. Aline and Miranda are identical in looks, but all three are very, very different in personality. Emily is driven and was on the road to becoming a doctor when she accidentally became pregnant, in a situation that is eerily similar to the one that caused her mother to drop out of medical school. Emily has twin boys, and her husband, Chris, is a supportive and loving teacher. Aline works in a laboratory and is determined to get a university teaching job, while Miranda is the lost soul. She doesn’t know what she wants in life and has tried opening a restaurant, a flower shop, and working in Africa; and now she spends time teaching tennis to the children of the wealthy at her father’s club.
When the girls learn about their mother’s diagnosis, they, predictably, react in different ways. But as they all spend time with their mother, secrets from their past are revealed. They learn the truth about what they thought was their mother’s previous cancer diagnosis. It wasn’t cancer. We learn the truth about Jake’s sudden desperation to get a divorce, and we learn why Jennifer doesn’t want to give him a divorce. We learn the truth about Jennifer’s childhood, and her mother.
What makes this story special is the tenderness with which it’s shared. Jennifer shares the story of her mother’s mental illness with no hint of self-pity, but rather with love and compassion. However, it’s more difficult for her daughters to react in a similarly compassionate manner when they learn about some hard truths regarding their childhood. And at the end, when we do find out who the murderer is, it’s not a huge surprise. While McKenzie has given us many suspects over the course of the book, she doesn’t hide who did it at the end. But the details—oh my. Some of those are extremely unexpected. Frighteningly so.
This is a book that would be a great source of discussion for a book club. There are so many questions and opinions that different readers might have. (We all will be united in our extreme dislike for Jake, though!) Because it’s about a woman and her three daughters, this is definitely a book that women will appreciate. Beach read? A cozy winter read? Any season you choose, you’ll be glad you met Jennifer.
Please note: This review is based on the advance review copy provided by the publisher, Atria Books, for review purposes.