BOOK REVIEW: The A-Z of Everything by Debbie Johnson

The A-Z of Everything
By: Debbie Johnson
Harper Impulse
Publication Date: 20 April 2017
Format: Paperback, 432 pages

P is for Paris where it all began. J is for Jealousy where it all came undone. But the most important letter is F. F is for Forgiveness, the hardest of all.

Sisters Poppy and Rose used to be as close as two sisters could be, but it’s been over a decade since they last spoke. Until they both receive a call that tells them their mother has gone – without ever having the chance to see her daughters reunited.

Andrea, though, wasn’t the kind of woman to let a little thing like death stand in the way of her plans. Knowing her daughters better than they know themselves, she has left behind one very special last gift – the A-Z of Everything. (Goodreads)

Having now read the vast majority, if not all, of Debbie Johnson’s novels, I was looking forward to picking up The A-Z of Everything, a book about a mother’s relationship with her feuding daughters.

Diagnosed with terminal cancer and given just a couple of months to live, aging actress Andrea Barnard sets about devising a plan to get her daughters, Rose and Poppy, to rediscover their sisterly bond. They have been at odds with each other since the year 2000, breaking Andrea’s heart bit by bit as she can only spend time with them separately, and they have missed out on so much of each other’s lives. So, rather than guilt trip them into gathering around her deathbed, Andrea decides to spare her daughters the pain of seeing her in this reduced state and instead leaves them an A-Z project.

It is her dying wish that they complete this project together, with each letter designed to bring them closer together and to learn to forgive and forget. Andrea’s old friend Lewis will guide them through the A-Z, giving them certain envelopes when he thinks they’ve earned them and ensuring that they don’t forget the reason for doing this. Both girls might be reluctant to be in each other’s company initially, but they are prepared to try for the sake of their mother and intrigued as to what crazy tasks she could have left them.

As the book alternates between past, present and Andrea’s A-Z letters, the history of Rose and Poppy’s dispute unravels, along with how their lives took a turn when they lost each other. Neither one has seen their dreams come true as they planned, and Poppy has particularly missed out on seeing her nephew, Joe, grow up. As they work their way through Andrea’s alphabet, which involves everything from watching a movie to hopping on a plane to Paris, the sisters must try and put their differences behind them and work out if they can ever move forward together.

Stepping back into Johnson’s fiction felt just like slipping into a comfortable pair of slippers, as I immediately acclimatised to both the characters and the plot and couldn’t wait to see events unfold. Andrea’s effortless humour and sarcasm eases you into the book perfectly, with her posthumous letters being full of wit and ensuring that her presence is never forgotten. Her motherly love and determination is felt throughout, as she guides her daughters to exactly where they need to be. She knows them inside out, and her plan to get them communicating again operates with perfect precision, even given some of her more obscure requests.

I grew to like both Poppy and Rose, as they are opposites in so many ways and yet complement each other ideally as sisters. In the years since she lost Rose’s companionship, Poppy has become a high flying marketing expert with a posh London apartment and a killer body that she trains hard to maintain. When she isn’t being a bitchy boss at work, she fills her time with wild nights out with people half her age, inevitably leading to meaningless sex. She has not been able to settle down, and is hoping that this project might finally convince Rose to forgive her for what happened all those years ago. She may seem hardened on the outside, but inside all she wants is a sister that still loves her and believes in her.

In contrast, Rose gave up her career in science when she got married and settled for being a teaching assistant, abandoning her dreams in favour of building a family. However, things didn’t quite go to plan as Joe’s father left her and has since remarried, forcing her to be a single mother and regain her independence. Now, she spends her days overeating and binging on chocolate in an attempt to make herself feel better about her life, which only makes her more miserable about her increasing waistline. She has been adamant for all these years that she can never forgive Poppy for what she did, but as the alphabet progresses she realises that she was wrong to spend so long on her own, and that she too has things worth envying.

A book very much about self-realisation and letting go of the past, Johnson’s writing can easily have you laughing out loud or lamenting the loss of a loved one, as she expertly captures each character’s sense of grief. However, despite the somewhat morbid circumstances that bring them together, this book is full of humour – especially given the level of alcohol consumed by the sisters! I thought that this made the book flow easily and made difficult matters pass by smoothly, as the girls learn to work out their differences with a mother’s guidance and realise that they need to make the most of what they have before it’s gone forever.

Another great book by Debbie Johnson, this tale of mother and daughters is heart-warming and sure to put a smile on your face. It may have a melancholy theme but is by no means a sad read, and will give you a refreshed outlook on life that will make you appreciate every moment with your loved ones. The relationship between the characters was bolstered by Johnson’s usual wit and laugh out loud scenes, making this a joy to read.





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