"Expiration Date" by Sherril Jaffe

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“Expiration Date” explores the feelings and thoughts about death in every way imaginable. Flora has a dream – but it’s more than a dream, more than a premonition, it’s frighteningly real, the heavenly court that convenes and sets the date of her death. Flora, very happily married and with grown children, learns that she will not reach her 60th birthday, that her “expiration date” is the day before. Flora’s mother Muriel maintains a sound mind and a youthful body for someone quickly approaching 90. In contrast to Flora’s blissful marriage, Muriel is widowed during the novel’s events and starts relationships with a few different men as the plots progresses.

In fact, chapters alternate between Flora with her expiration date, and Muriel with her seemingly endless lease on life. Flora considers the implications and the exigencies: as the date approaches, she wonders, will this be the last time I walk with my mother, see the Golden Gate Bridge, make love with my husband? It turns out this is the thrust here, albeit one that grows slowly: Flora stresses, in an oddly calm and circumspect way, about her supposedly imminent death, while Muriel, the mother, compares her various men to her definitely-not-sainted late husband. The constant consideration of death’s many changes dominate this slender book, and they form its backbone, its major chord. This is a Jewish family, and Flora’s husband Jonah is a rabbi. He recounts many stories from the Talmud with regard to the coming of the Angel of Death; Flora considers whether she can trick him by always being on the move, or by changing her name, or by some other means.

For me, this book never tends toward a conclusion; the mother and daughter progress toward imagined ends or intermediate events, and events never gave me an inkling of what to expect. Author Sherril Jaffe keeps us guessing until the very last. This can be considered a virtue, certainly, but I doubt the author intended a thriller climax. She gives us instead a final open-ended thought that summons the Buddhist principles into which she immerses us as she wraps up. Her lesson: death isn’t the point, living each moment is the point. Long-lived Muriel’s story cautions instead of congratulates: carpe diem, rather than slave away in a secure but unloving marriage. Flora should be proud after all: she manages to live her life of love with a sense of wonder and gratitude for all that she has.

This story will clearly resonate with those who face the challenge of illness, or who have lost loved ones, and it includes well- and subtly-told lessons on the art not of dying but of living and loving life.

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