The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying

Author: Nina Riggs

Reviewed by David Freedman

Two cancer memoirs appeared posthumously in 2016 and 2017.  The first, “When Breath becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi was completed by his wife Lucy.  The second, “The Bright Hour” by Nina Riggs concludes with some final words by her husband, John Duberstein.  It was inevitable that there would be comparisons.  Both books were highly acclaimed and some reviewers referred to “The Bright Hour” as 2017’s “When Breath Becomes Air”.  Others took a further step back and made the connection with Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal”.

These comparisons are useful and the poignant follow-up to the Kalanithi/ Riggs comparison will be returned to shortly.  But first it is necessary to address what sets “The Bright Hour” apart.  To begin, Nina Riggs was a gifted writer and a poet who was greatly influenced by the sixteenth century French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne and her great-great-great grandfather Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Not surprisingly then, she has a lovely writing style e.g. the Feeling Pretty Poorlies – the walking wounded of the cancer militia; or “One big upside of being told I have incurable cancer is that my husband finally has stopped smugly saying, Ìt’s your funeral when I make a decision he doesn’t agree with`”.   Nina Riggs is bright, witty and very transparent in what she shares with the reader.

The downside, perhaps, is that the book began as a blog and the author was well along before deciding to turn it into a manuscript.  While the book tells the story of the last two years of her battle with cancer  – even being divided into four sections, Stage One through Stage Four – it is presented as a series of vignettes, some of which are as short as half a page.  For this reader, it did not spark the same page-turning urgency or produce the tears of the Kalanithi book.  A partial explanation might be that her very wittiness offers a cover for Nina Riggs pain and suffering for both her and the reader.  Still, it is an important contribution to the cancer literature and well worth reading.   Moreover, as the spouses of Nina Riggs and Paul Kalanathi have joked, there is a place now for a sequel, “When Breath Becomes the Bright Hour.”

Yes indeed!  The widow and the widower have become a celebrity couple, often going on speaking tours together.  One of Nina Riggs’ final acts was to encourage her husband, John, to reach out to Lucy Kalanithi.  Two days after Nina died, John did exactly that in seeking wide-ranging advice: “How do I write a eulogy? How do I sleep through the night?  How do I not go insane?”  That was the beginning of a relationship, which is still evolving.  If there is a third book in the offing, I look forward to reviewing it.