Imagine being told you have approximately 100 days to live, thanks to an incredibly aggressive tumour in your liver that has now metastasized to your lungs?
No, seriously, go on do it; not that easy is it?
That’s because, explains Lucio, the incredibly likable and real protagonist in Fausto Brizzi’s Italian bestseller One Hundred Days of Happiness, we always envisage death as a future tense scenario.
We all know we’re going to die, that it’s all but inevitable; but when you are confronted with its stark reality, with its very here-and-nowness you can’t shunt it off to an agreed point far into the future.
It’s happening now and the only decision you have left, apart from whether you are going to fight it with everything at your disposal, is how you will spend the time remaining to you.
Lucio does make some effort to fight his killer, which he ironically names “my friend Fritz”, in an attempt to give his mortal enemy a face beyond cancer, going to see a naturopath and undergoing chemo, but by and large this intensely poignant story that will you crying by its concluding pages is about how Lucio makes his peace with life.
A life that he, like many of us, has not lived as fulsomely as he thought he might as a child.
“This killer has just a short, simple first name, astrological and deeply unfunny: cancer. Some call it a ‘tumour’ … but doctors call it a ‘neoplasm’. But I’ve always called it ‘l’amico Fritz’, in Italian, just like the name of the opera by Leoncavallo. My friend Fritz.
This is the story of how I lived the last hundred days of my existence on planet Earth in the company of my friend Fritz.
And how, in spite of all expectations to the contrary, those were the happiest days of my life.” (P. 5)
Along with two very close friends from school days, Umberto, a single vet who is like a brother to him, and playboy airline pilot (living the stereotype!) Corrado, he had written down a long list of accomplishments as a child that he was sure, as you are in your formative years, that he would have hands-down achieved by the age of 40.
But as he stares down his last all too finite one hundred days, he realises he hasn’t become the water polo player of his dreams – though he has coached a team of school age players that really shouldn’t have done as well as they have – working in an underground gym far from the bright lights and life-conquering hopes of his imagined adulthood.
One point in his favour – he did fall in love with and marry the beautiful, sweet, playful and absolutely wonderful Paola, have two kids Lorenzo and Eva, and carve his own piece of (under-realised) domestic bliss.
So points scored there on the great scale of life; the downside? He recently cheated on his wife of 10 years with a gym client, immediately regretted it but not before his wife found it, inperiling the only thing he really feels he has achieved, and more importantly, never regretted, in life.
Taken in, by of all people, his gregarious pastry maker father-in-law Oscar, who sees Lucio as more of a fallible son than anything else, Lucio has to make some tough decisions and fast? What will be his priorities in the closing days of his life? Does he quit his job? Go tick major boxes on not yet fully-formed bucket list or seek Paola’s forgiveness as a matter of urgency?
Given how great and life-defining his relationship with Paola is and how much else of immense value radiates out from it, Lucio naturally picks that as his main goal for the final 100 days of his life, which are counted down chapter-by-chapter with ominous speed.
But making a decision and enacting it when you have a very angry, emotionally shut down estranged spouse are two very different things, and though Paola does come to the party and take Lucio back in and help with him medical appointments and counsel on major decisions, it is does under duress, powered only by the now-covered-over great love she has for him.
One Hundred Days of Happiness does then have, as you would imagine, a ticking clock of epic proportions at the heart of its story (as well as a burgeoning appreciation for Leonardo da Vinci who pops up everywhere; or at least his inventions, and Lucio’s appreciation for them do) and yes, it’s impossible not be deeply and profoundly affected by the litany of final goodbyes that fill Lucio final days.
But there is also great humour and insight too, with Lucio able to self-depracatingly and blisteringly honestly able to address many of the deficiencies and mistakes of his all-too-short life.
As he moves through the initial shock to a growing sense of what he has to do to (maybe) win Paola back, cement life lessons with his kids, honour his enduring friendships and maybe just create some new precious ones, you never get the sense that this is some trite, Hollywood-by-the-numbers effort to document someone’s life and death.
There is no last minute cure, no sense of final escape from the eternal guillotine hanging over Lucio’s head; after all, he tells us right at the start of the story that he’s died (so trust me not a spoiler) so that, very sadly, is that.
“The final goodbye takes place at a bus stop, where a long-distance coach is waiting that will take me to Lugano. I load my small light suitcase into the luggage receptacle in the belly of the bus, then I kiss the kids and hug Paola. An embrace that never seems to end.” (P. 351)
What do you get is a man who’s happy to prank the Vatican with Umberto and Corrado. Who takes Paola and his kids on an unforgettable carpe-diem trip through places he knows well in Italy and places he has always wanted to go, and who makes some of the most important and enduring accomplishments of his truncated life when most people would be climbing into a chair and burying their heads in the proverbial sand.
One Hundred Days of Happiness isn’t necessarily inspiring; again, it’s not written by Brizzi, who writes with bright, sparkling prose that is as lively as you would expect a well-lived life to be (even if it takes death to engender that), with that intent.
What it is, and in ways both epically moving and intimately affecting, is heartfelt and real, as you come to know and love Lucio, Paola and his impertinent, inquisitive funny kids, his friends, Oscar (and his day-starting donuts) and the ever-widening satellite of people who surround a man condemned to a premature death but determined to make the most of what’s left of his life.
Death is never treated as anything but a thieving implacable foe, but throughout this beautiful book that left me blubbering as a baby but immensely grateful that I went on this sparklingly honest journey with Lucio, you come to appreciate that you have a real choice should death come knocking far earlier than expected.
You can either surrender to your mistakes, your losses and your failings and regret, or you do as Lucio does, imperfectly but he does them and that’s the critical thing, and you make what you can of those final months, weeks and days and suck every last piece of memory-creating, love-affirming marrow of experiences new and old, with humour, tears, truth and sobering insightfulness (and yes even some cheekiness) and go out with as victorious an exit as death will allow you.