I was sitting at the tire place, waiting for my car to get new shoes and had brought along my Kindle to pass the time. I started to read my husband's book group pick, managed about ten pages before I closed it, and moved on to the next book in my list: Life and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagán.* I knew nothing about this book and was unfamiliar with the author. So, I clicked on the title and started to read. When I realized, on the very first page, that it was about a woman with an incurable cancer, I almost closed it as well.
Three friends are battling cancer right now; one lost his battle this month; and several others are currently in remission, but their lives still involve periodic tests and stressful times as they wait for the results. So, though I don't use this word often, I can honestly say that I hate cancer.
Still, I decided to stick with this book because Pagán has a way of addressing hard topics - cancer and divorce in this case - while still writing an entertaining book. And I had some time to kill. Besides, I don't often say 'no' to a travel book. In this case, Libby puts her house on the market, leaves Chicago, and flees to Isla de Vieques; Vieques is a Caribbean island off of Puerto Rico's eastern coast.
I already mentioned that the novel deals with cancer and divorce. What I didn't tell you was that Libby gets dual bombshells dropped on her in the same afternoon. First, she is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and, then, her husband admits he is gay when he assumes that she already knows by the stricken look on her face. She never tells him about the cancer; she just reacts. This quickly spirals into her kicking Tom out, putting their apartment up for sale, and her booking a trip to Puerto Rico - no passport needed to an American territory - because her passport is expired and she isn't sure she'll live long enough to get it renewed.
The writing was engaging and the plot paced nicely. I was definitely fully invested in Libby's survival and appreciative of the friends and her twin brother, Paul, who insisted that she fight for her life.
The title comes from this passage when the pilot who flew her from San Juan to Vieques delivers her luggage: "He gave me a half smile. 'Life is a near-death experience. But suit yourself,' he added lightly, as though I’d just rejected the offer he didn’t actually make. 'Your suitcase is on the porch. See you around, Libby'" (pg. 86). Okay, so the arrival didn't go smoothly as they crash landed in the ocean just off shore. But [spoiler alert!] it is how she meets Shiloh who ends up being more than just her transportation.
Libby begins to drown her sorrows as soon as she gets to the airport. "I pulled a move that was decidedly un-Libby-like: I walked into an airport bar, sat down, and told the bartender to serve me what he would have if he were making a drink for himself. (In hindsight, perhaps this was not the best idea, as the bartender’s capillary-spidered cheeks said he’d spent the better part of his life downing highly flammable spirits.) 'Dirty martini,' he said, pouring the contents of a silver shaker into a deceptively small cocktail glass with a flourish" (pg. 65). And she explains why she doesn't typically imbibe. "Great mother of pearl! Liquor was powerful stuff. While I wasn’t sure I liked it, I had a feeling it might come in handy as I prepared to meet my maker. Historically, I had no strong feelings toward alcohol one way or the other, but aside from the occasional beer or celebratory glass of champagne, I’d largely avoided it because Tom’s father was an alcoholic, and not the jolly, highly functioning type. Even mild inebriation made Tom uncomfortable" (pg. 65).
In the end, the lesson she takes to heart is one we all could stand to embrace: live fully and completely. "Yet I’ve come to understand that the way I will truly honor my mother’s memory is not with a big act, but through my daily choices: to be compassionate with myself, even when my will is weak and my body fails me; to give myself freely to those I love, even when it means my heart may be broken; and to live fully and completely while I have the chance—just as my mother did" (pg. 244).
On the Plate: Mallorcas
The she runs into Shiloh again on the beach and he asks, "'Have you had Isla’s conch fritters yet?' 'What’s a conch fritter?' I asked. 'Oh, my. You’ve never had a conch fritter? We’ll have to fix that. Do you have plans tonight?'" (pg. 104).
And so they do. "I glanced up at the waiter. 'An order of conch fritters and the tuna steak.' 'And to drink?' the waiter asked. 'Something strong.' 'I’ll have the same entrée and a Corona,' Shiloh said. The waiter brought me a tumbler filled with guava juice and rum, which was tastier than Milagros’s rocket fuel, and which relaxed me to the point that I was able to chat about trivial things with Shiloh until the fritters arrived" (pg. 107).
But I was inspired to make Mallorcas, or Pan De Mallora, after reading this part: "Even after a solid night’s sleep and a long shower, the previous day’s shock had not worn off, but I was confident that a good cup of coffee, a baked good or three, and a change of scenery would help soothe my nerves. After strolling up and down a few blocks, I came upon a blindingly pink café, from which the scent of heaven itself—baked dough and sugar—wafted out. I walked in and sat at one of the bar stools that lined the U-shaped counter. 'What smells so good?' I asked the woman behind the counter. 'Mallorcas,' said a voice" (pg. 102).
Having never had one, I did some reading and it's described as a fluffy, eggy, buttery, sweet bread that is coiled like a snail’s shell and generously dusted with powdered sugar. And it likely came to the island with the Spanish colonizers. In any case, it sounded delicious and perfect for a Sunday morning snack: cafecitos y mallorcas.
- 1 Tablespoon active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup organic granulated sugar
- 1 cup warmed milk
- 1 cup warmed water
- 5 cups flour plus more as needed (I used another 1/2 cup for dusting and rolling)
- 7 medium egg yolks
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted plus more for brushing (another 1/4 cup)
- powdered sugar for serving
- Also needed: baking sheet lined with parchment paper, sweetened coffee for serving and dipping
In a large mixing bowl, combine yeast, granulated sugar, milk, and water. Stir to combine, then sprinkle in 1 cup flour. Whisk until smooth. Cover and set aside in a warm place until batter is risen and foamy, approximately 45 minutes.
Mix egg yolks into batter Then add remaining 4 cups flour. Pour in 1/2 cup melted butter and mix until completely moistened into a shaggy dough. Cover and set aside in a warm place until dough has doubled in size, approximately 1 hour.