10 reviews

The Life List: A Novel
by Lori Nelson Spielman

Published: 2013-07-02
Paperback : 368 pages
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25 clubs reading this now
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Recommended to book clubs by 9 of 10 members

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 ...
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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

Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.

Editorial Review

Inspiration for The Life List, by Lori Nelson Spielman

Like any author, I’m often asked how I came up with the idea for my novel. My answer comes easily. The seed for The Life List was found in an old cedar box.

It had been years since I’d last opened my miniature hope chest, a high school graduation gift. The scent of cedar greeted me, along with my first bankbook, my grandmother’s rosary, a couple of silver dollars, and a single sheet of notebook paper, folded into a neat little square.

Curious, I unfolded the yellowed paper. In flowery cursive, Lori’s List was penciled across the top. My abandoned life list.

I was wise enough to include the day and month, March 13th, but foolishly I’d omitted the year. Maybe I hadn’t planned to keep it. Maybe I didn’t realize how quickly memories fade, how years later, I’d barely remember the day that young girl sat on her blue flowered bedspread, contemplating her future. But judging from the goals, what had and hadn’t been accomplished, I was somewhere between 12 and 14 years old.

The crumpled piece of paper revealed a list of 29 things my adolescent mind imagined would make for a good life. I’d also added a sidebar called Ways to Be, which included such pearls as, Don’t talk about ANYONE. Laugh. Say “hi” to everyone.

I’d love to say that all my goals were altruistic and contemplative. In truth, many were embarrassingly self-indulgent and trivial. Have lots of clothes was actually on my life list. Seriously! Be a cheerleader was another lofty goal. (Did I actually think shaking pompoms would be a life changer?) Ah, but I did have Help people on my list. And Give my body to science was thoughtful, right? Never mind that I qualified it with a “maybe”.

Relationships were important to me. A scrawny girl with teeth too big and breasts too small, I was pretty much ignored by the opposite sex. So naturally, Be popular and Have boyfriends were at the top of my list, followed by longer-term goals of Have a good marriage, Have babies, Have a close family.

Even as a young girl, I loved to write and tell stories, yet being an author was not on my life list. In my middleclass neighborhood, in my middleclass town, I’d never met a single author. Authors lived in New York City, or in glass-walled houses overlooking the Pacific. Instead, I hoped to be a teacher, a profession that seemed accessible. And if not glamorous, then at least comfortable.

As I stood reading the list some thirty years later, it pleased me that I did, indeed, accomplish many of my goals. I had made the cheerleading squad (phew, right?). I had my share of boyfriends, though they arrived much later than that young girl once hoped, thank God. I’d graduated from college and learned to ski and traveled to Europe. I was a teacher, a profession I loved. I had a good marriage. I even had a cat. But I didn’t live on a lake. I hadn’t designed my own home. I didn’t have two kids, or a horse, or a dog.

As I read the list, I thought about how different my life would be if I’d fulfilled every goal my youthful heart longed for. In no time, my mind was racing. A story was taking shape. What if someone were forced to finish their life list—a list they thought they’d outgrown?

In the course of several days, my story evolved. First, I came up with riddles from a dying mother, offering her daughter cryptic clues to find her true self. But that was silly. Why the riddles? Why wouldn’t her mother just tell her daughter what she wanted her to accomplish? And it was crucial that the mother didn’t appear heavy-handed or controlling. The story could only work if it was clear that the mother’s intentions came from a loving heart. I also knew the story risked being predictable. I imagined readers rolling their eyes, sure that in the end, Brett would be married to the love of her life and have a baby and a dog and a horse. Her dreams couldn’t be accomplished easily, or in conventional ways the reader might expect. I wanted some goals to lead to others, in circuitous, serendipitous ways. Soon, pages for Another Sky were piling up, becoming the manuscript that would later be re-titled, The Life List.

So there you have it: the kernel for The Life List was my old life list—Lori’s List. Though I fell short of some goals, I believe my list served me well. It’s true, I won’t be waving my children off to college. But I will get to watch my novel set off for parts of the world I may never visit. My book will be introduced to new people, and hopefully entertain, and possibly provoke discussion. And maybe, just maybe, my story will inspire some other little girl, in some other small town, to set her own goals, to aspire to something that’s hers alone. And whether her ambitions are humble or grandiose, silly or pensive, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is, she dreams.


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’Hadrian perfume and goat’s milk soap. Her iron bed creaks as 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. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. Have you ever created a life list of your own? Like Lori and Brett, were you lucky enough to come upon it later in life and if so, did you find anything surprising? Have you managed to accomplish the majority of your childhood aspirations? How would your life be different if you’d completed your list in its entirety? After reading this book, are you inspired to revisit and even attempt to realize some of those early goals?

2. Frustrated and discouraged by her mother’s final wishes, Brett exclaims, “Life as I know it has just been shredded! And I’m supposed to piece it back together in a way that some ? some kid wanted it to be?” Yet, Elizabeth was sure all along that Brett would emerge as a happier, more contented woman if she did a major overhaul of her life. Do you think the goals we make as children are still valid into adulthood? Would people generally be better off getting back in touch with the things that mattered most to them as adolescents as opposed to the things they think matter most as adults? Is the shedding of our childhood fancies a necessary aspect of growing up, or might we be forsaking a fundamental piece of ourselves in the process?

3. The meaning of family and heredity is a major theme throughout the novel, especially in terms of how the characters view their relatedness. At one point, Joad refers to Brett as Elizabeth’s “illegitimate daughter,” while he feels disconnected from Austin because she doesn’t look like the rest of the family. Meanwhile, Brett grapples with her own issues of paternity concerning Johnny and Charles, which mirrors their sense of affinity, or lack thereof, for her. How would you say family ? “real family,” as the characters struggle to define it ? is distinguished within the context of this novel?

4. Elizabeth implies, and Brett eventually realizes, that she abandoned much of the courage and self-assurance she possessed as a girl to strive for acceptance in the eyes of men. Lori herself has said that as a guidance counselor, she has observed this trend manifest in the lives of many girls, who start out with lofty goals only to forsake them in their relationships with the opposite sex. Do you think this is a common occurrence amongst women? Are there other female characters in the novel who have fallen victim to this unfortunate trap, or if not, how have they managed to avoid making the same mistake?

5. Brett’s relationship with Jean Anderson, the director of the Joshua House, proves to be quite an eye-opener for her, with Jean adding a dose of grim reality to the naïve, wide-eyed way that Brett has of looking at the world. Discuss how Brett’s worldview evolves from the beginning to the end of the novel and the other characters that play a part in this. As Brett asks herself, do you think most of her transformations have been a result of channeling her inner courage, or merely due to stupidity, immaturity, or arrogance, or perhaps a mix of all? Do you think people commonly resist making difficult changes in their lives unless forced to, as Brett was? How do you tackle the obstacles in your own life that might prevent you from arriving at a positive outcome?

6. Motherhood is a central focus in this story. Interestingly, though, Elizabeth, the foremost maternal figure, is deceased before the novel opens, and in many ways, it’s the “phantom” mothers and children introduced along the way who play such a pivotal role. What are some of the lessons the characters have learned or you think will eventually learn from the absence of their mother or child? Are there any loved ones in your own life who have similarly conveyed an invaluable message after their passing?

7. In her notes to Brett, Elizabeth imparts wisdom that must necessarily last her daughter a lifetime. What was the most significant lesson you took away from her?

8. Brett abandoned her relationship with Carrie Newsome out of embarrassment and fear that she wouldn’t otherwise be accepted by a new clique. Is Brett deserving of Carrie’s unfaltering affection and acceptance? Have you ever experienced a similar situation with a friend and if so, were you able to repair the relationship down the road?

9. For much of the novel, Brett worries she might be incapable of being involved in a “normal” relationship, either because she feels unworthy of love or because she’s grown accustomed to a certain type of man. When and why does this notion begin to deteriorate and what is it about Garrett that changes everything?

10. Looking back on her journey while in the warm familiarity of what was once her mother’s and is now her own home, Brett considers, “Funny how places become people, how this house and her old iron bed still pull me in and offer comfort when I need it.” Can you think of any other locales within the novel that take on the persona of a human being? Are there any places in your own life that function in the same manner?

11. What would your life list consist of now?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

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by Mindy K. (see profile) 06/15/22

by Abby U. (see profile) 08/06/19

by Jennifer G. (see profile) 02/22/18

  "Nice read"by Jamie M. (see profile) 07/31/15

The book was an easy, somewhat lighter read, however, it was way too predictable for my taste.

by Anne E. (see profile) 06/03/15

Light, different and fun.

by Karen B. (see profile) 06/03/15

by Monica S. (see profile) 11/23/14

by Danielle K. (see profile) 11/20/14

  "The Life List"by Marilyn H. (see profile) 03/22/14

I picked up the book and decided to read a few ppages to see how I liked it. I started at 1:30 in the afternoon and didn't stop reading until 8:30 that night when I finished the book. Loved it!

  "The Life List"by Lucy R. (see profile) 03/21/14

The author came to our book club meeting and impressed us with her story of writing the book--an interesting journey! The novel was an interesting read!

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