Few of us will go through the hell experienced by US high-school teacher Brendan Halpin when his 32-year-old wife, Kirsten, was diagnosed with life-threatening cancer. But just about all of us have complicated relationships with parents, ambivalent feelings about food and drink, peculiar obsessions with certain songs, and unanswered questions about what sort of God could have created a world that so often sucks.
Which is what makes Halpin's diary of the months during which his wife went through make-or-break chemotherapy a little gem of humanity that will touch anyone who reads it, and not in any grim-but-good-for-you way, either. In the midst of potential tragedy, while turning himself into number one parent for their three-year-old daughter, Rowen, Halpin finds time to explain why The Heroic Trio, with its "really spectacular fights, an evil guy who gets his finger cut off and then eats it, some cool decapitations, and one scene where a spinning, flying motorcycle is used as a weapon" beats Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon hands down in the kick-ass movie stakes, and to muse on whether it could be "all the crying children" that makes a toy superstore "so creepy and depressing".
Video games offer some escape. Halpin's work in a Boston charter school offers more, and he guiltily flees there even when his frail, bald wife desperately needs him at home. "When she asked me to give up the thing that means most to me, when she, the love of my life, my best friend, asked me to pick her over work, I didn't do it. I feel like a total dick."
Yet such is Halpin's honesty that we feel, with him, the relief of the school day. "While teaching's not like plumbingI I still have more of an illusion of control at work than I do at home." He loves the teenagers he tutors and is touched by the way they care about what is happening to him; when "the girls go 'AawwwI ' and the boys give me manly affirmation".
He doesn't love education consultants: all, he declares, "former teachers who couldn't hack it for one reason or another and then decided their failure to make a career of teaching, along with the MBA or other degree they subsequently earned, gave them the expertise to go around the country charging huge fees to tell teachers what to do. I guess it's nice work if you can get it, but to me it ranks below pornography on the list of honest occupations that contribute something useful to society. Which of course means that like pornographers, education consultants make much more money than teachers."
What does Halpin learn from his ordeal? That he loves his wife and daughter more than anything in the world. That in a crisis people can get on your nerves. That small kindnesses create their own reward - the top oncologist who takes on his wife's case turns out to be someone he dutifully went over and talked to when she was a newcomer to his church. And that maybe the Zen master whom he quotes, Thich Nhat Hanh, had it right when he said the key to happiness was being grateful for your life and enjoying the wonderfulness of breathing: "There is only one problem, it's really, really hard."
What do we learn from Halpin? That teaching is a great job, with the same ups and downs the world over. That Americans seem better neighbours than we are - at one point the Halpins' bathroom is cleaned daily by volunteers. That it is pure pot luck that it is him, not us, in that position. And that even when life has you down on the mat and is beating you to pieces, there are still moments of pleasure and joy.
This book owes something of a style debt to Dave Eggers' recent memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and rather more of a music anorak's debt to Nick Hornby, but is more raw in its suffering than either. In fact, it is music that mainly helps Halpin through, and he doesn't stint on the detail. Whether it is the Carter Family, the Clash or Johnny Cash, "music is the only thing that has really made me feel, in a deep way I can believe, that we are not alone down here".
At the end of the account, Kirsten is doing well but still facing a mastectomy and an unknown future. There are no happy endings, although this book is one happy outcome of a young family's terrible ordeal.