Women in Amy Boesky’s family die young, and they die specifically. The threat of ovarian cancer has hung over the heads of Amy and her two sisters for as long as they can remember. It killed their grandmother, their aunts, their great-aunts. The hallway of their childhood home was filled with the sepia photos of dead relatives, what Boesky calls her “ill-fated, all-female family tree.” All three young women have lived with a heightened timeline, urged by doctors to finish having babies and get preventive surgery by age 35.

The beauty of Boesky’s thoroughly compelling memoir is that she deals matter-of-factly with her horrible, random family inheritance and dwells not on pity but on the life that is lived even underneath its looming shadow. A literature professor, Boesky writes elegantly, almost poetically, about the year in her life during which she had her first child, her sister lost one daughter and gave birth to another, and her mother was diagnosed with cancer (in a cruel twist, it’s not ovarian cancer).

Boesky perfectly captures the prickly, competitive, always loving way she and her sisters cope with their own genetic code and their mother’s illness. They are not above gallows humor (they call their mother’s chemotherapy drug F-U) and the occasional neurotic lapse, sure that any lump or bump is a sign of doom. As satisfying as any novel, What We Have is about coming to terms with the fact that living life means facing down time.

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