Book Review: Belly of the Whale, by Linda Merlino

I am an avid reader. Always have been. As a child, books opened up a world of magic and wonder. The first book I ever remember reading over and over again was Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. It was a Christmas gift from my grandmother that I still hold in my heart today. As a young adult I was transported to the Great Plains as I read the Little House on the Prairie series. I absorbed each word into my being until I was Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Black Stallion books ushered in the era of posters covering my bedroom walls and saw my bicycle transformed into a trusty Arabian steed. As an adult, my reading tastes are many and varied. But I have a particular fondness for thrillers and cop stories. So when I was approached a few weeks ago about reviewing Belly of the Whale I didn’t even hesitate. A free book! Are you kidding me? I’m all over it!

~~~~~

Hudson Catalina has breast cancer. She is young in breast cancer terms, only 38, and the mother of four. Yet her youth and vitality have been drained away from her courtesy of intense chemotherapy treatments. Belly of the Whale opens with Hudson at the end of her coping abilities. She has given up hope. Despite her marriage to a wonderful man and being surrounded by loving, supportive family and friends, she can not see an end to her physical misery outside of death itself. The reader joins Hudson on what she intends to be her last day of chemotherapy. A day beset by a Nor’easter that virtually closes up her small Massachusetts town.

Hudson sees death ahead and is on a mission to celebrate a lifetime of milestones for her newly 5 year old daughter – all in one singular birthday celebration. To complete this mission she heads out to Whales Market for supplies despite the raging blizzard and her own post-chemo debilitation. While there, Hudson, the owner of the market and the mentally challenged bag-boy fall victim to an unhinged local teen intent on robbing the store. Throughout the stormy night in Whales Market, Hudson’s wish for death is challenged over and over again, clarifying for her just how precious life is.

I found Belly of the Whale to be a captivating and well written book despite my complete impatience for and dislike of the main character. The author, Linda Merlino, is a breast cancer survivor her own self so she certainly understands the mind of a cancer patient. I found her rendering of Hudson’s mental state to be very true-to-life. Many of her words resonated with me. Many times I felt compelled to write “Yes!” in the margins of the book.

Speaking of a crisis she writes, “Some people gather their wits about them, sort through all the mire and come out on the other side transformed.” How true this is. Also true is that many people do not. Hudson Catalina is firmly in the “do not” category. Being one of the transformed, I had a very difficult time tolerating her. Is there any bigger crime than throwing away one’s life when others are desperately fighting a losing battle to hang on to theirs? I don’t think so… and it made the first half of Belly of the Whale very difficult to read.

However, Merlino’s other characters, Ruby and Willy Wu, were irresistibly likeable and priceless in their wisdom. Ruby chastises Hudson at one point, telling her, “God isn’t to blame for these unfortunate times in our lives… I’ll tell you that life’s a circle and we go around like the spokes on a wheel. Sometimes we’re happy, our faces in the light, and sometimes the wheel thrusts us into harsh places of darkness and despair. But we have to believe that it keeps going round, back into the light. Never give up hope.” I love the imagery here; the circle and repetition in the patterns in our lives. Happy, sad. Joy, despair. Yes!

All in all, I enjoyed Belly of the Whale, though I wouldn’t recommend it to someone currently in treatment for cancer. Many of its insights and revelations are best accepted by one who has already made it out of the whale’s belly.

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