First Day of the Rest of My Life

G.Y.L.T. B.I.T.L. (get your life together before it’s too late) might be one of the acronyms Madeline O’Shea uses with her clients as their life coach, but she finds it hard to follow her own advice.  Cathy Lamb’s The First Day of the Rest of My Life may sound like a fluffy narrative, but Lamb likes to let you get comfortable enjoying the quirky characters, and then wallop you with their terrifying secrets.

The O’Shea girls, Madeleine and Annie, have survived a horrific childhood with their abusive stepfather, to become privately dysfunctional but publicly normal. Annie is a vet, with military training in explosives, which she uses to rectify animal abuse; Madeleine is a popular motivational speaker and successful counselor, with a penchant for using her mother’s clichéd advice on her clients. A blackmail letter with pornographic pictures from their past threatens to reveal their terrible childhood abuse, and a reporter has uncovered new information not only about their childhood but also about the grandparents who raised them. Madeleine’s grandmother, a famous children’s author and illustrator, suffers from dementia; her ramblings hint at escape from Nazi Europe, with her picture stories of black swans a metaphor for wartime terrors that she has kept secret from her grandchildren.

Lamb offers some comic relief to the awful descriptions of child abuse, the vengeful courtroom scene, the assorted health attacks on the family – cancer, brain tumor, dementia, heart attack – with scenes from their mother’s pink lady beauty salon and exaggerated depictions of Madeleine’s clients, who throw glitter at her and dress her up in a Cats costume as part of their therapy. Madeleine’s advice is tough love, with blatant attacks on mostly women’s inability to stand up for themselves. Her magazine articles offer solutions, giving Lamb the opportunity to speak from her soapbox about society’s ills.

But be prepared to invest in some tissues, tears, gasps, and sighs. Before the predictable happy ending, the story vacillates between outright misery and familial loyalties. In a heavy-handed portrayal of emotions and history, Lamb focuses on two unbearable topics – child pornography and the Holocaust – one might have been enough.