Believe me on this: it's not easy to pan a cancer survivor's painfully honest true-life account of how she beat breast cancer. How can you critique such a raw memoir from someone struggling with cancer without coming off like a heartless jerk?
Marisa Acocella Marchetto accomplished something truly significant in facing cancer head-on, and managing to keep her sense of humor as she did so. The fact that she gritted her way through chemotherapy, admirably handled the stress of her diagnosis in the midst of planning her wedding and managed to write and illustrate a detailed graphic novel about her ordeal is not only impressive, but almost superhuman.
But that doesn't mean "Cancer Vixen: A True Story" is a good book. It's not.
Marchetto presents herself as the quintessential New York City chick -- the kind of shoe-obsessed, cappuccino-sipping, fashionista who makes the girls from "Sex and the City" seem blue-collar and low-maintenance by comparison. She's waltzing her way through a charmed life in a city where "to be seen" is to exist, but she takes it all for granted. She is selling cartoons to "The New Yorker" and various other magazines (including Glamour, which pretty much sums up her precancer mindset).
She has a vast network of glamorous and urbane friends, flits about with the glitterati, and regularly dines at a swanky uptown restaurant where the celebrity owner regularly comps her meals and drinks. When said restaurateur spurns the leggy supermodels that throw themselves at him for Marisa and asks her to marry him, the biggest headache in the author's life seems to be where in Tuscany she should go on her honeymoon.
That's when the doctor discovers the lump in her breast. At the age of 43 -- for the first time in her life -- Marchetto has to part with her fairy tale version of New York life and face cold reality.
From there "Cancer Vixen" begins to alternate between despair, self-pity and self-importance. While it's certainly understandable that someone diagnosed with cancer would experience despair and frustration, Marchetto wallows in it even as her Maserati-driving husband covers her medical bills (she had allowed her health insurance to lapse) and her mother provides her with round-the-clock tender loving care.
As she undergoes chemotherapy, Marchetto is taking mental notes of the footwear her doctors wear. She demands a less-intense chemotherapy treatment because she seems more concerned with keeping her hair than surviving. And she only makes that decision after carefully considering the fashion ramifications of wearing a headwrap.
Marchetto gets points for her keen eye for detail and for presenting a warts-and-all viewpoint of her thoughts, feelings, and fears with dealing with one of the most traumatic things anyone can experience. Her book is well-drawn, clever at times, and funny. The most poignant part is a brief recollection of how she took to the streets, interviewing and sketching the people she met, in the hours after the World Trade Center collapsed.
But, throughout the whole book, it's hard to look at Marchetto as anything other than a spoiled little girl, one who managed to live a carefree life of glamour and excitement, and never experienced anything more poignant than a bad break-up. .
Maybe "Cancer Vixen" can resonate with some readers -- women, or men, who are going through cancer. Maybe they can read this book and find a kindred spirit, or a source of strength to help them in the battle ahead. I sincerely hope it does.
But, rather than read Marchetto's story about how cancer almost ruined her wedding to Prince Charming, I'd much rather read the story of "less glamorous" woman in the same shoes -- well, perhaps in more sensible shoes.
Cancer Vixen A True Story
By Marisa Acocella Marchetto
Knopf, 218 pages, $22
Dan Murphy is a local free-lance writer.