A few months ago, I was honored to be chosen as an “Off the Shelf” reviewer for Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City. Y’all may have noticed by now that I love books. So why wouldn’t I be thrilled to have the opportunity to read quality books (for free!) and talk about them here? My first review follows. My only compensation was the book itself, and the opinion is my own.
A Story Unfinished: 99 Days with Eliot is the story of every parent’s worse nightmare–the death of a child. And even more tragically, about knowing that death is inevitable before in the eyes of the world that child’s life has even begun. It sounds sad, and of course it is. But reading it will lift you up, not drag you down.
At a 30-week prenatal appointment, Matt and Ginny Mooney learned that their unborn child had a genetic condition–Trisomy 18–that would result in his death within hours or days of birth, if not before. But baby Eliot defied the doctors’ expectations and lived for 99 precious days. His parents chronicled his brief life in their blog, and those entries make up a portion of the book.
Knowing only that their time with their son would be brief, the Mooneys took full advantage of it, cherishing every moment. The shortness of Eliot’s life seems like a tragedy, but having feared he would die in the womb, each of those 99 days felt like a gift to the Mooneys and was treated as such.
This isn’t your typical biography. For one thing, you know in advance how the story ends–or at least how THIS part of the story ends. You know going in that Eliot dies in 99 days. And the story isn’t told in a linear fashion. Matt mixes the story of Eliot’s life with flashbacks and previews, and adds his insights. This was a little disconcerting to me at first because I didn’t expect it, but I think it works well for what he is hoping to accomplish with this book.
Because it’s ultimately not just the story of a baby’s life; it’s about what his parents took away from the experience, and what we all can learn from it. Yet I don’t want to make it sound preachy, because it isn’t. Matt believes in the goodness of God and the redemptive value of suffering, but he doesn’t sugarcoat the pain: “We do not get to pick the ways in which God chooses to reveal himself. Please understand what I am not saying. The loss of Eliot is bad, big-bucket Bad, and I make no attempt to tie a bow on our own experience nor the immense pain I come across in the lives of others. I miss him every day.”
People debate whether God causes bad things to happen, or ask why He doesn’t prevent them, or say that is He doesn’t prevent them, it’s just as bad as if He causes them. Some people believe that every death and every tragedy is part of God’s plan, and directly willed by Him with a purpose that we cannot hope to understand. Certainly all of us know that sometimes good things come out of bad things. Matt writes about this toward the end of the book, in talking about his journey to pick up his adopted daughter, abandoned in a Ukrainian orphanage because she was disabled. This was for me the most profound moment in a book that is overflowing with profound moments: “But for losing my son, I would not be in this car. I would not be in Ukraine. . . . If Eliot were here, I would not be here. The absolute worst thing in each of our lives was the thing that brought us together. Without walking a road of pain and misery, our paths would never have crossed. But they did. Lena is my daughter.”