This reading group guide for Before I Go includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Colleen Oakley. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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As a twenty-one-year-old college student, Daisy Richmond’s answer to the question “If you knew you were going to die in one month, what would you do?” was full of adventure and travel to exotic lands. As a twenty-seven-year-old woman who is faced with a recurrence of breast cancer, her answer is very different. Before I Go
is the poignant story of Daisy’s journey to navigate the unexpected twists and turns of life, and the painful process of letting go of everything but love. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. At the beginning of the story, Daisy describes herself as stubborn, independent, organized, and definitely not indecisive. What words would you use to describe her at the beginning of the story?
2. After receiving the news from Dr. Saunders about the probable recurrence of her cancer, Daisy waits twenty-four hours before telling Jack. Why do you think she waited? What do you learn about Daisy and Jack’s relationship from the way they navigate the conversation when she tells him the news?
3. Daisy describes her observation about people from her work at a credit card call center by saying, “. . . most people just want to talk. To be heard. Even if it is by a stranger. Or maybe, especially if it’s a stranger.” Do you think she wants this for herself? Is this observation true for you? Why or why not?
4. On page 78, Daisy says: “. . . there’s only one thing that’s worse than actually having cancer, and that’s having to tell people you have cancer.” What do you think makes talking about cancer (or any other serious illness) so awkward for most people? How would you want people to respond if you were in Daisy’s situation?
5. How is Daisy’s response to the question “If you knew you were going to die in one month, what would you do?” different at age twenty-seven than it was at age twenty-one? How did she use the first month following the news about her cancer’s recurrence? What did you feel toward her as you read the story of how she was spending her days? How would you answer the question?
6. How would you describe Jack’s response to Daisy as she pushes him away? Do you think he represents a typical partner’s response? Why or why not? How would you respond to someone you knew had a serious illness and seemed to be pushing you away?
7. What do you think Daisy is trying to avoid by focusing on planning Jack’s future before she dies?
8. Describe Daisy’s friendship with Kayleigh. In what ways are they similar? How are they opposite? Do you relate to the kind of friendship they share? Describe.
9. What do you think were some of the factors that precipitated Daisy’s panic attacks? Have you ever experienced a panic attack or known someone who has?
10. Describe the bargain Jack and Daisy made about each others’ schooling when they learned about the extent of her cancer recurrence. Why do you think Daisy was so intent on Jack continuing school in the midst of her cancer treatments? Would you have made the same decision? Why or why not?
11. What role does Pamela play in the story? How does she serve a similar function for both Daisy and Jack?
12. Based on what you learn about Daisy’s life as a young girl, what are some of the ways she has learned to cope with pain and disappointment in her life? How do those strategies serve or hinder her when she’s diagnosed with Lots of Cancer?
13. On page 219, Daisy quotes a therapist she saw once who said, “anger is grief wearing a disguise.” Do you agree? Why or why not? Do you think Daisy would agree at the end of the story?
14. How do you feel about the way the story ended? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Invite someone you know who is a cancer survivor to share their story at your next book club. Spend time discussing the question, “If you had a month to live, what would you do?”
2. Make a bucket list. Spend time thinking about the things you want to experience before you die and write them down. Make plans to start crossing things off your list, one at a time. Discuss your lists at your next book club.
3. Think of someone in your life who is dealing with a chronic or terminal illness. Make a list of a few ways you could encourage and demonstrate care for them during this time. Make a plan to do at least one of the things on your list for them. Discuss what this was like at your next book club.
4. Notice the things that make you angry in the course of a week and write them down. Spend some time reflecting on what griefs your anger may be disguising. Share reflections at your next book club. A Conversation with Colleen Oakley What was your inspiration for writing Before I Go? Have you ever walked through a terminal illness with someone?
About six years ago, I was assigned an article where I had to interview a woman who was dying of metastasized breast cancer. It was a powerful interview for many reasons, but what struck me the hardest was the fact that she was around my age—late twenties at the time—so I couldn’t help but put myself in her shoes. I was a newlywed and it surprised me that my first thought wasn’t What would I do if I was dying, but What would my husband do? Fred’s the kind of guy who thinks cooking a meal means opening a box of Rice-A-Roni and a can of tuna. Would he eat boxed meals for the rest of his life? Would he date again? Would his new girlfriend or wife be like me? The idea evolved from there. I think most couples have had the conversation “Would you remarry if I died?” And I thought it would be interesting to take that one step further— what if you could hand pick who your husband married? What did you enjoy most about writing this story?
I had so much fun creating Jack and Daisy’s relationship—particularly the beginning of their love story. Who doesn’t love those first few months of falling in love with somebody? Of course, that just made it so much harder for me to write the ending, because I was invested in them as a couple, and I hated tearing them apart. Have you always dreamed of writing a novel? When did you first know you were a writer?
I’ve been writing stories since I first learned to hold a pencil. I think my mom still has some of my books that I wrote in elementary school (I bound them and everything!) in a box in the attic. So yes, I’ve always dreamed of writing a novel, but like most writers, I have a hard drive full of unfinished manuscripts, so I wasn’t always sure I would actually realize my dream. What was the most challenging part of writing this story?
There were so many challenges, but I think the hardest thing was to strike the right tone. The subject material is obviously fraught with emotion, but I didn’t ever want it to be too maudlin or depressing. I hope that I achieved a good balance. Even though the story of Daisy's Lots of Cancer is filled with sadness, your writing style conveys a lightheartedness and humorous tone. What role does humor play in your life?
I’ve never been great at dealing with very serious, grave situations. I’m usually the person in the corner cracking a joke or trying to say something witty or clever to lighten the mood. Sometimes I’m probably wildly inappropriate, but sometimes I think it’s really necessary. I remember when my grandfather (who was a very funny man) died, my entire family sat around telling the most hilarious stories about him and laughing until we cried. So maybe I come by it naturally, but I really do believe that laughter is the best medicine. Do you think Daisy is a picture of someone who refuses to grieve?
That’s a good question. I think I’ve always seen Daisy as someone who’s in denial, but refuses to admit she’s in denial. She uses Jack—and finding a wife for him—as a way to avoid processing what’s really happening to her. I also think grief is partly about accepting that not everything in life is within our control, and that’s something Daisy obviously has a really hard time with. Is there a message you hope readers take away from reading Before I Go?
My favorite books are those that touch me in some inexplicable way. I do hope the book reminds people to love hard and live their lives fully in the present. But I think my biggest hope is that readers find something in my book that they connect with emotionally—whether it makes them laugh, cry, or throw the book across the room in frustration. When you're not writing novels and essays, what are some of your favorite ways to spend time?
Laughing with (and sometimes at) my husband and my unbearably cute kids, throwing dinner parties, and watching clips of Jon Stewart and Jimmy Fallon online (I’m never awake late enough to watch them live). I’m also a reluctant runner—I’m often training for some type of race that I have no hopes of winning. Your Twitter bio says you are a margarita enthusiast. What is your secret to making a fantastic margarita?
Jalapeño tequila. My website designer (the fabulous Maria Palladino) introduced me and now I’m hooked. Try it! You won’t be disappointed. Which character in the book was the most fun to develop?
The easy answer is Kayleigh, because she’s so wry and her character really allowed me to bring comic relief to some tough scenes. But I probably enjoyed writing Daisy’s mom the most. I love her quirks—the obsessive bird-watching, the incompetence with technology—and I really enjoyed writing her full-on emotional outbursts. She doesn’t hide her sadness and it was somewhat of a relief to write her, since every other character is so guarded with their feelings. Do you have a “bucket list”? If so, what are some of your favorite hopes on your list?
To learn to ski. To master one magic trick that baffles adults and children alike at parties. To have a first-person encounter with the Loch Ness monster. I realize these aren’t all completely realistic. Skiing is hard. What can we expect from you next?
I’m working on a book about a young girl who’s a medical marvel—she’s allergic to other humans. It’s going to be amazing. Or really terrible. Depends on the day you’re asking.