The Life List: A Novel

The Life List: A Novel

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by Lori Nelson Spielman

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In this utterly charming debut—perfect for fans of Cecelia Ahern’s P.S., I Love You and Allison Winn Scotch’s Time of My Life—one woman sets out to complete her old list of childhood goals, and finds that her lifelong dreams lead her down a path she never expects.

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In this utterly charming debut—perfect for fans of Cecelia Ahern’s P.S., I Love You and Allison Winn Scotch’s Time of My Life—one woman sets out to complete her old list of childhood goals, and finds that her lifelong dreams lead her down a path she never expects.

1. Go to Paris
2. Have a baby, maybe two
3. Fall in love
Brett Bohlinger seems to have it all: a plum job, a spacious loft, an irresistibly handsome boyfriend. All in all, a charmed life. That is, until her beloved mother passes away, leaving behind a will with one big stipulation: In order to receive her inheritance, Brett must first complete the life list of goals she’d written when she was a naïve girl of fourteen. Grief-stricken, Brett can barely make sense of her mother’s decision—her childhood dreams don’t resemble her ambitions at age thirty-four in the slightest. Some seem impossible. How can she possibly have a relationship with a father who died seven years ago? Other goals (Be an awesome teacher!) would require her to reinvent her entire future. As Brett reluctantly embarks on a perplexing journey in search of her adolescent dreams, one thing becomes clear. Sometimes life’s sweetest gifts can be found in the most unexpected places.

Praise for The Life List

“A wonderful, touching story that reminds us to live life to its fullest.”—Cecelia Ahern, New York Times bestselling author of P.S., I Love You
“Spielman’s debut charms.”Kirkus Reviews
“You won’t want to miss Lori Nelson Spielman’s remarkable debut, an intensely emotional novel of transformation and trust. It’s about how we let go, and how we never let go. The Life List has great heart, and even greater soul.”─Sarah Addison Allen, New York Times bestselling author of The Peach Keeper
“Irresistible! Everything I love and look for in women’s fiction. A clever, funny, moving page-turner.”─Susan Elizabeth Phillips, New York Times bestselling author of The Great Escape

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From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Happy with her boyfriend, her job, and her fabulous loft, Brett Bohlinger is entirely thrown by her mother's death—and even more thrown when the will stipulates that before she receives her inheritance she must complete a list of goals she wrote two decades ago at age 14. Become an awesome teacher? Brett's journey has attracted considerable attention, with rights sold to 14 countries and film rights optioned by Fox 2000 Pictures.

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chapter one

Voices from the dining room echo up the walnut staircase, indistinct, buzzing, intrusive. With trembling hands I lock the door behind me. My world goes silent. I lean my head against the door and take a deep breath. The room still smells of her—Eau d’Hadrien perfume and goat’s-milk soap. Her iron bed creaks when I crawl over it, a sound as reassuring as the tinkle of her garden chimes, or her silky voice when she’d tell me she loved me. I came to this bed when she shared it with my father, complaining of an ache in my belly or monsters under my bed. Each time Mom took me in, holding me close and stroking my hair, whispering, “There will be another sky, my love, just you wait.” And then, as if by miracle, I’d wake the next morning to find ribbons of amber streaming through my lace curtains.

I kick off my new black pumps and rub my feet in relief. Scooting backward, I settle against the yellow paisley pillows. I’m going to keep this bed, I decide. No matter who else wants it, it’s mine. But I’ll miss this classy old brownstone. “She’s as sturdy as Grandmama,” Mom would say about her home. But to me, no house, no person, was ever as steady as Grandmama’s daughter—my mother—Elizabeth Bohlinger.

Suddenly I have a thought. Blinking back tears, I bound from the bed. She hid it up here, I know she did. But where? I throw open her closet door. My hands grope blindly behind designer suits and dresses. I yank at a rack of silk blouses, and they part like theater curtains. There it is, nestled in her shoe rack like an infant in its crib. One bottle of Krug, sequestered to her closet for the past four months.

Once it’s in my clutches, guilt infests me. This champagne belongs to Mom, not me. She splurged on the outrageous bottle on our way home from her first doctor’s appointment, and promptly tucked it away so it wouldn’t be confused with the regular bottles downstairs. It was a symbol of promise, she rationalized. At the end of her treatments, when she was given a clean bill of health, she and I would open the rare champagne as a celebration of life and miracles.

I finger the silver foil and bite my lip. I can’t drink this. It was meant for a celebratory toast, not for a grieving daughter too weak to make it through a funeral luncheon.

Something else catches my eye, wedged between the spot where I found the champagne and a pair of suede loafers. I reach for it. It’s a slim red book—a journal, I suspect—secured with a faded yellow ribbon. The leather cover is cracked and weathered. To Brett, she has written on a heart-shaped gift tag. Save this for a day when you are feeling stronger. Today, raise a glass to us, my dear. What a duo we were. Love, Mom.

I trace my finger over the handwriting, never as neat as one would expect from someone so beautiful. My throat aches. Despite her assurance of a happy ending, my mom knew the day would come when I would need rescuing. She’s left me her champagne for today, and a sliver of her life, her inner thoughts and musings, for tomorrow.

But I can’t wait until tomorrow. I stare down at the journal, desperate to read her words right now. Just one quick peek, that’s all. When I tug the yellow ribbon, though, an image of my mom takes shape. She’s shaking her head, gently chastising my impatience. I glance at her note, telling me to wait until I’m stronger, and I’m torn between my wishes and hers. Finally, I set the journal aside. “For you,” I whisper, and tap the cover with a kiss, “I’ll wait.”

A moan rises from my chest, cracking the silence. I slap a hand over my mouth to catch it, but it’s too late. I double over, clutching my ribs, and literally ache for my mother. How will I ever manage to stumble through this world without her? I have so much more daughter left in me.

I grab the champagne. Holding the bottle between my knees, I pop the cork. It shoots across the room, knocking over a bottle of Kytril from my mom’s bedside table. Her antinauseants! I scramble to the bedside and gather the triangular tablets in my fists, remembering the first time I offered one to Mom. She’d just had her first chemo treatment and was full of false bravado for my sake. “I feel fine, really. I’ve had menstrual cramps that have given me more grief.”

But that night, nausea hit her like a tsunami. She swallowed the white tablet, and later asked for another. I lay with her while the drug mercifully took effect and allowed sleep to come. I snuggled next to her, in this very bed, and stroked her hair and held her close, just as she’d done for me so many times. And then, raw with desperation, I closed my eyes and begged God to heal my mother.

He didn’t listen.

The pills stream from my palm into the plastic prescription bottle. Leaving the lid loose, I position the bottle on the table’s edge, close to her bed, so she can easily reach them. But no . . . my mom’s gone. She will never take another pill.

I need the champagne. “Here’s to you, Mom,” I whisper, my voice cracking. “I was so proud to be your daughter. You knew that, right?”

In no time the room is spinning, but my pain is mercifully eased. I lower the champagne bottle to the floor and pull back the down comforter. The cool sheets smell faintly of lavender. It feels decadent to lie here, away from the crowd of strangers one floor below. I burrow deeper under the covers, indulging myself in just one more moment of silence before returning downstairs. Just one more minute . . .

A loud knock startles me from my stupor. I sit up. It takes a second before I realize where I am . . . shit, the luncheon! I bolt from the bed, stumbling over the champagne bottle as I lurch for the door.

“Ouch! Oh, damn!”

“You okay, Brett?” my sister-in-law Catherine asks from the open doorway. Before I can answer, she gasps and rushes into the room. She squats before the damp rug and lifts the bottle. “My God! You spilled a bottle of Clos du Mesnil 1995?”

“I drank a good bit of it first.” I plop down beside her and dab the Oriental rug with the hem of my dress.

“Jesus, Brett. This bottle cost over seven hundred dollars.”

“Uh-huh.” I drag myself to my feet and squint at my watch, but the numbers are all blurry. “What time is it?”

She smooths down her black linen dress. “It’s almost two. Lunch is being served.” She tucks a stray curl behind my ear. Even though I tower over her by a good five inches, she still manages to make me feel like I’m her unkempt toddler. I half expect her to lick her fingers and pat down my cowlick. “You look downright gaunt, Brett,” she says, repositioning my pearl necklace. “Your mother would be the first to say that despite your grief, you must take care of yourself.”

But that’s not true. My mom would tell me I look pretty, even though my makeup has been cried off. She’d insist that the humidity has enhanced my long auburn waves, not created a frizzy rat’s nest, and that my puffy, red-rimmed eyes are still the soulful brown eyes of a poet.

I feel tears threaten and I turn away. Who’s going to boost my confidence now that my mom’s gone? I bend down to grab the empty bottle, but the floor wobbles and lurches. Oh, God! I’m on a sailboat in the middle of a cyclone. I grab hold of the bed frame like it’s my lifeline and wait for the storm to pass.

Catherine cocks her head and studies me, tapping her bottom lip with her perfectly manicured nail. “Listen, sweetie, why don’t you stay put. I’ll bring you up a plate.”

Stay put my ass! It’s my mother’s luncheon. I need to get downstairs. But the room is fuzzy and I can’t find my shoes. I turn in circles. What was it I was looking for? I stagger to the door barefoot, and then I remember. “Okay, shoes. Come out come out wherever you are.” I squat down and peer under the bed.

Catherine grabs me by the arm and pulls me up. “Brett, stop. You’re drunk. I’ll tuck you into bed and you can sleep it off.”

“No!” I shake off her hold on me. “I can’t miss this.”

“But you can. Your mother wouldn’t want you—”

“Ahh, there they are.” I grab my new black heels and work to plant my feet into them. Jesus, my feet have grown two sizes in the last hour.

I barrel down the hallway as best I can, my feet half in, half out of my pumps. With both hands outstretched to steady me, I stagger from one wall to the other, like a pinball. Behind me, I hear Catherine. Her voice is stern but she’s keeping it low, as if she’s speaking through clenched teeth. “Brett! Stop right now!”

She’s nuts if she thinks I’m going to skip the funeral luncheon. I have to honor my mother. My beautiful, loving mother . . .

I’m at the staircase now, still trying to push my swollen feet into these Barbie doll pumps. I’m halfway down the staircase when my ankle twists.


At once a sea of guests, all who’ve come to pay tribute to my mother, turn to watch me. I catch glimpses of horrified women raising their hands to their mouths, and men gasping as they rush to catch me.

I land in a heap in the foyer, my black dress hiked to midthigh, minus one shoe.

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