Ruth Picardie was a journalist working in London. Shortly after her marriage in 1994 to Matt Seaton, also a journalist, she found a breast lump. After testing, she was told it was benign. Two years later, and a year after giving birth to twins, the lump enlarged and this time she was diagnosed with advanced, inoperable breast cancer. She rapidly developed bone, liver, and brain metastases and died in September 1997, aged 33.

This book consists of a selection of Picardie's e-mail correspondence during the last year of her life, the columns she wrote for the Observer newspaper (a series about dying she called "Before I say goodbye"), readers' letters responding to her column, and an introduction and epilogue by her husband. While not, then, strictly a memoir, this collection of texts constitutes an intimate view of a witty, angry young woman undergoing an intolerable illness.

The expected elements are there: diagnosis, chemotherapy, radiation, hope, the loss of hope. What is unexpected is the way these are presented, and the vividness with which we share the prospect of saying good bye to her children, her gradual detachment from her husband, and, as the brain metastases spread, the loss of coherence and the appalling silencing of her powerful voice.


Ruth Picardie's writing, and her view of cancer, are intensely English. Her sardonic wit and the ironic lightness with which she conveys her suffering call to mind a cruel alternative version of Bridget Jones's Diary. Picardie's e-mail conversations provide a disconcerting sense of eavesdropping on private correspondence, and the same sense of unvarnished realism. Particularly interesting are the interchanges with her gay friend, Jamie, who is HIV-positive. Their discussions about terminal illness and alternative therapies are mordantly funny.

Picardie's style in her Observer columns is not terribly different from her e-mails, and her honesty elicits moving responses from the readers whose letters are included here. As she becomes confused (or as she puts it, the brain tumors make her go 'bonkers'), she writes two last letters, to her children. Reproduced in her handwriting, confused and halting, but determinedly funny and upbeat, they form an awfully sad last statement.

This book has several characteristics rarely found in terminal illness memoirs. Picardie focuses on the value of continuing to indulge in day-to-day pleasures (cosmetics, chocolate, watching "ER"), and retaining the superficial values that many see as irrelevant in the face of profound change (she spends a lot of time bemoaning the fact that her cancer has made her put on weight instead of becoming fashionably wasted, and she worries about whether or not to go to a boutique sale, because she may not make it to next season).

She (or perhaps just the nature of this collection of fragments?) refuses to allow the trajectory of her disease to become the shape of her life. And she uses the bitterest of humor to expose the absurdity of illness, of cancer treatment, and of dying. That something this tragic can be this funny leaves the reader with a sense of outrage at the injustice of it all.


Henry Holt/Owl Books

Place Published

New York



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