Ben Givens, a retired surgeon whose wife of several decades has recently died, knows he has inoperable colon cancer. The only other person who knows is a friend and colleague; he hasn't told his daughter or grandson, not wanting to burden them with the news. Not wanting, either, to burden them with his eventual care, or to face the inevitable deterioration and pain to come, he decides to take a putative hunting trip into the mountains where he hunted quail as a boy and there to stage what is to look like an accident by shooting himself.

His plans are thwarted, however, when he gets into a road accident, is helped by a young couple, has to attend to an injured dog and later a young migrant worker giving birth. Life keeps intruding on his plans to die. In the course of several long and eventful days, memories of childhood and young adulthood, love, college, the war, medical school, return to give him back the story of his life and eventually lead him to reconsider how that story should end.


This beautifully written novel, much of it focused on the interior landscape of a fine and mature mind, is illuminating for anyone who thinks suicide is a rational and perhaps obvious alternative to the pain of a slow death. The story reflects implicitly and complexly on how, given the choice, people are likely to die as they have lived; dying is part of living.

The memory sequences, reaching back to the early death of Ben's own mother from cancer, give texture to the present character of an old man who is unable to stop being a healer, or to break a lifelong habit of saving life rather than taking it. He is not, in all respects, simply likable. The reader has to come to terms in Ben with a man of mixed motives, partial self-knowledge, moodiness and inconclusiveness. A wonderful read and useful book for discussion of end-of-life decision-making.


Harcourt Brace

Place Published

New York



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