Pack Up the Moon
Joshua and Lauren are the perfect couple. Newly married, they’re wildly in love, each on a successful and rewarding career path. Then Lauren is diagnosed with a terminal illness.
As Lauren’s disease progresses, Joshua struggles to make the most of the time he has left with his wife and to come to terms with his future–a future without the only woman he’s ever loved. He’s so consumed with finding a way to avoid the inevitable ending that he never imagines his life after Lauren.
But Lauren has a plan to keep her husband moving forward. A plan hidden in the letters she leaves him. In those letters, one for every month in the year after her death, Lauren leads Joshua on a journey through pain, anger, and denial. It’s a journey that will take Joshua from his attempt at a dinner party for family and friends to getting rid of their bed…from a visit with a psychic medium to a kiss with a woman who isn’t Lauren. As his grief makes room for laughter and new relationships, Joshua learns Lauren’s most valuable lesson: The path to happiness doesn’t follow a straight line.
Dabney and Maggie read Kristan Higgins’ Pack Up the Moon, then (virtually) got together to discuss the novel and are here to share their thoughts.
MB: According to my quick, possibly flawed research, AAR has reviewed all of Ms. Higgins’ books – some of them twice! I’ve read most of her older works but haven’t really picked her up since her (mediocre to me) Blue Heron series. My favorite book by her is Just One of the Guys, which made me laugh out loud in quite a few of the scenes. What is your history with this author?
DG: I’ve read all of Higgins’ books, interviewed her three times, and am, overall, a huge fan of her work. Several books in the Blue Heron series are DIKS for me – Anything for You and The Best Man, and I can’t lavish enough praise on several of her women’s fiction title – If You Only Knew and On Second Thought are my faves. I think, especially in her women’s fiction, she presents emotional issues with nuance and affection better than many of her peers.
MB: This book certainly deals with a deeply emotional issue – the death of a spouse. It would be easy for such a novel to be a complete tearjerker, but that isn’t the case here. It’s sweet, funny, and optimistic without ever minimizing the pain of Josh’s loss. I cried – but I laughed a lot, too. Was that your experience as well?
DG: Well… this book wasn’t quite for me. Perhaps it’s because I read it months ago at the height of the pandemic, but I found the subject matter depressing and the humor off. I spent much of my time reading it shaking my head and thinking “nope.”
MB: What about it had you saying “nope”? The depiction of dying, the humor fell flat (if so, why?), the responses of grief? What gave you pause?
DG: To begin with, I found the illness Lauren was dying from to be so brutal. She’s literally slowly choking to death. Higgins does a phenomenal job of really showing the reader what this illness does to its victims and how, though there’s no cure, medicine treats it. She does such a good job that I felt mired in the tragedy that is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and, amid COVID, that wasn’t what I was looking for. That horror was wedged into Lauren’s voice, and letters which were so chipper and cutesy (most, but not all, of the time) that I felt whipsawed.
MB: That “whipsawing” actually felt real to me. I work in the mental health industry and in personal health care, where we see a lot of suffering. I am really familiar with the sentiment (if not the phrasing) of Lauren and Josh and their motto of “Get busy living or get busy dying” which they called Shawshanking (since the original line comes from the film The Shawshank Redemption). In fact, one of the things I really liked about this book was that Lauren and Josh handled the illness in a way that felt so typical – starting with tracking down all the possible cures available through Western Medicine, then alternative medicine, diet changes etc. I thought Lauren and Josh worked together beautifully as a couple. He was methodical, organized, proactive, and focused, and she reminded him of the importance of having a life by enjoying friends and family and fun times through the dying process rather than just letting the disease be their life 24/7. Her joie de vivre and how she brought that out in him as well was fantastic and one of the things that sold me on their romance. What did you think of them as a couple?
DG: I thought both were far more stereotypes than I’d expected from a writer of Higgins’ caliber. I also thought—and again, this is MY trigger—that Lauren and Josh were written in a way I can only call instructive. Their personas seemed crafted to show how to be a really good person in the middle of a really bad thing. I don’t mind that in and of itself. But here, I felt that moral modeling made the leads seem less believable.
But, to go back to what you just said, I do think Higgins is on the money in the way she had Josh and Lauren pursue cures and come to terms with Lauren’s illness. I’m involved with Compassion and Choices, a national nonprofit advocating for patient rights and individual choice at the end of life, and I give full marks to how Higgins showed both the hope and the crushing devastation that comes when facing death and dying. But for me, that realness juxtaposed against the lightness of their love story kept distracting from both.
I wasn’t wild about either Josh or Lauren although I liked him better than I did her. Lauren was both overly chipper and overly – at times – bratty. Josh’s stoicism and grief made him hard for me to really get a grip on.
MB: Our reactions here are the exact opposite. I liked Lauren and know a lot of women like her but Josh was a problem for me. I’ve met hundreds of people on the spectrum, and he isn’t an accurate portrayal of the disorder. I get tired of the only slightly off center – and always in a way that benefits them – Asperger’s/Autism novelized individual because such characterizations often make it hard to get the funding these clients need to live full lives in the real world. Additionally, those moments when Josh sees red and essentially loses control of his temper were also an issue for me. Some of those encounters are violent and involve him actually laying his hands on people. One stereotype that we are constantly fighting against in the mental health industry is that the neuro-different are dangerous and violent. None of the research supports that.
I found Josh’s stoicism realistic but not the fact he combined it with being such a great caregiver. I’m often with the families for years and the guys tend to be strong emotionally but leave the work of physical care giving to others. Josh combining the two felt off, but I understood the author was trying to convince me how perfect he was :-)
Moving on, the secondary characters here are wonderful. I loved almost all of them – Josh’s friend Radley, Lauren’s friend Sarah, the family members. They were exquisitely detailed and articulated. They were also not filler but an integral part of the story; each of them showed us a different aspect of the grieving process and how to be a friend to someone in need.
DG: I always like those who people Higgins’ books. They’re multifaceted and often funny. I loved Lauren’s family especially. I didn’t love Sarah. The relationship that she, Lauren, and Josh shared made me sad for her. I didn’t want her to have her life shaped by Lauren but I did want her to find joy which, shoehorned in at the end, I think she did.
MB: I am probably biased toward Sarah because I work with lots of social workers and love them all! I’ve read several novels with letters the deceased left for the living as a theme. It would have been easy for this to be an overly cutesy trope, but I thought the notes showcased how well Lauren knew Josh and also how well she knew the role she played in his life. As he performed the short list of challenges she left behind, it seemed to help him grow and mature in a lot of ways. What did you think of the missives and their errands?
DG: While I love the idea of the letters – I know someone who did this beautifully – Lauren’s clear wish to literally pick Josh’s second wife discomfited me. I’m not bothered by that trope in and of itself; one of my favorite historical romances is Lorraine Heath’s Waking Up with The Duke. But in Pack Up the Moon, Lauren’s letters seemed manipulative in a way that rubbed me the wrong way.
MB: I thought Lauren offered a solution that would assure her husband and another person significant to her were happy without her. It felt less manipulative and more wish fulfillment to me. What did bother me was when Josh introduced his own contender in this arena who is the anti-Lauren – a complete mess of a human being who was incompetent in a low powered career where Lauren had been so brilliant and capable in a high powered one, a person who irritated those around her while Lauren had been so charming strangers loved her, a person who couldn’t cope with setbacks while Lauren grew from them – and that left me thinking that Josh wanted someone around who had no chance of ever being anything more than second best.
DG: Yep. When Josh does pick his own choice for his next love, she’s such the anti-Lauren that his choice challenges—and not in a good way—the reader’s sense that he’ll be happy.
MB: I agree. What did you think of the overall structure of the novel? The book essentially starts with Lauren’s funeral and tells the love story through flashbacks and letters. I thought the flashbacks were terrific and loved learning who Josh was as Lauren’s husband while simultaneously seeing who he was becoming without her. How did you feel about the non-linear style of the story?
DG: I liked the structure of the novel. Beginning with Lauren’s death and then going backward in time made it much easier to slowly take in how awful what happened to her and to Josh is. Again, I think Higgins is a hugely gifted author. Here, her skill at using the style of the story to peel back the facets of her characters works brilliantly.
MB: I thought the ending was a bit too long and detracted a bit from the overall narrative. I would have preferred for the novel to end after the jesa ceremony and the touching moment at the end of that chapter. The last few pages and the epilogue felt tacked on and almost like the start to another book. What did you think of the ending?
DG: Well, after all the trauma Josh went through, I was happy to see he was so happy and that he had found love and a way to live with joy. So, it worked for me.
MB: I’ve made a few complaints but overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Pack Up the Moon and my grade for it is an A-. What about you?
DG: It’s B/B- for me. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I read the book now, its sadness wouldn’t wallop me in the same way. I’ve loved so many of Higgins’ books and this one does have, on the surface, so much I’d normally have enjoyed. So, I’ll play it safe and fair and go with a B!