Book Review: Finding Frances

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The following review of Janice M. Van Dyck’s book Finding Frances (Winston-Higgins Press, 2010) has been written for our quarterly journal Recovering the Self by our regular reviewer Patricia Wellingham-Jones. It is presented here with Patricia’s permission.

Synopsis: Frances Baldwin knows she is dying and is ready to go. The novel explores how difficult it is to die naturally in today’s advanced medical-technological world, especially when family is against the idea.

Finding Frances is based on Janice Van Dyck’s experiences during her mother’s decline and death. During that process, her mother urged her to take notes and write about it later, as a way to help others learn to choose what path they wish to follow. We follow the self-involved journeys of three siblings and the husband/father as they deal with what to them is unthinkable-that Frances wants nothing further to do with medical procedures, to be left in peace to die naturally.

Told by medical staff that if she chooses against a life-saving procedure and goes home to die, medical insurance won’t pay and the family will likely be bankrupted, Frances agrees to the surgery. Problems arise, and a second surgery with only a 25% chance of survival is strongly urged. At this point, she digs in her heels and refuses, puts herself in the hands of hospice and lies back to die. She enlists her son William’s help to do this and he reluctantly agrees. Son Randy wants only distance, daughter Sugar is always there for her, though dealing with her children and broken marriage. Husband Bill opted out of engagement years ago and is sunk in his own despair. Frances mulls over her life and the iron grip family has on her to stay alive so they won’t have to face their own deaths.

Chapter 14 especially resonated with me, when Frances reflects that people always ask the wrong question, “Why do you want to die?” She says the question should be, “Why don’t you want to live?” Twenty pages later, William muses, “When did we turn over our deaths to institutions?” I found the book moving and powerful. It speaks to the heart.

The cover states, “There is more to life than living, and more to death than dying,” and the book is a good example of that truth. By the end, as Frances draws her last breath, the various members of the family have faced hard realities and grown from them. Frances has the satisfaction of finally being who she really is and they all learn from her passage.