Having remarried after a long and partly happy life with a woman who bore him three sons, novelist Campbell Armstrong lives in rural Ireland with his second wife. He learns that his first wife, who works in Phoenix, has advanced lung cancer and, with his second wife’s blessing, goes to spend time with her and their grown sons. In the course of that trip, he reflects on their life together, their romance, his alcoholism and its effect on their family, their move to the U.S., their losses, and the remarkably enduring affection between them and, surprisingly, between the first wife and the second.

Completely surprising all of them, a daughter his first wife gave up for adoption, who has searched for years for her birth mother, shows up in the months before Eileen’s death and makes the trip to Phoenix to meet her birth mother. Her appearance turns out to be a gift to the whole family. She assuages decades of sorrow and longing in both her and her mother’s hearts. She herself has cancer, not as advanced as her mothers. Both she and her mother work in health care professions. Much psychological and spiritual healing is accomplished between them in the short time they have before Eileen’s death several months later.


This remarkable memoir, with its unlikely but actual surprise appearance of a long-lost birth child, entwines many strands of reflection on personal choices and consequences, family ties, and what it means to reclaim life in the midst of losses and in the wake of poor decisions. Armstrong wrote it, he claims, because Eileen asked him to, but it is very much his own story. The writer maintains a thoughtful and respectful distance from the intimacies of his former wife’s pain and of her healing time with her birth daughter, keeping his own grieving, ambivalences, remembered pain, gratitude, and learning moments in the foreground.

Some chapters focus on his relationship with his three grown sons, some on his own history of alcoholism and his regrets about poor parenting, though much healing has taken place, some on his own efforts to process the loss of a woman still very much a part of his life and psyche as she succumbs to the rapid course of her illness.

The book testifies to the endurance and complexity of family, the possibility of healing after many kinds of loss, as well as the fact that some losses are permanent. Sober, but neither maudlin nor bleak, it might be a helpful story to those who are sorting through the ways illness occurs in their own disrupted or broken relationships and sometimes offers occasions for renewal.


Book title in the United Kingdom: All that Really Matters


Crown Publishers

Place Published

New York



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