Sometimes, all you want from a novel is for it to be a heart-warming, feel-good affair, and that’s exactly what you get in Olivia Beirne’s debut The List that Changed My Life. Centred on an extremely relatable lead character, this book deftly balances light-hearted humour with more serious topics, resulting in a life-affirming story that hits a lot of good notes and is sure to strike a chord with any reader.
Georgia Miller is your average 26-year-old – she loves wine and reality TV, avoids any activity that involves a sports bra, and she’s found a comfort zone that she’s very happy operating within, thank you very much. She has a job as an assistant designer, that pays the bills even if she’s not actually doing what she was hired to do, and a loving family who lives close by, including a braver, bolder, older sister she’s particularly close to. Life is steady and normal, and no risks need to be taken, but then Georgia’s sister Amy is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and it forces Georgia to take stock of her own life.
With Amy no longer able to tick off everything she wanted to do on her bucket list – and facing a future of increasing dependence as the illnesses progresses – she writes her sister a list of activities that encourages her to step out of her carefully cultured comfort zone and embrace life, and all of its thrills. With a deadline to work towards, Georgia needs to find some bravery of her own to complete the list, honour her sister, and learn a few things about herself in the process.
“I shake my head as the wind tickles my ears and plays with my hair, spiralling behind me. My chest rises and falls as I peddle, and for the first time in weeks, the tight knot around my heart isn’t there. I feel happy.”
The List that Changed My Life is one of those novels that plays out largely how you’d expect; there’s an engaging heroine, and a love interest that helps Georgia with her mission, not to mention a lot of luck at play, a lot of coincidences and a lot of happenstance to further the narrative too. As a character, Georgia is completely convincing, being, as she is, as prone to overthinking, exaggerations and second guessing as the rest of us. Her first-person narrative reads like an honest, hilarious internal commentary, and it’s impossible not to get sucked up into the whirlwind of Georgia’s thoughts as she sets out to tick off every item on the list.
There are times, however, when the novel feels a bit too contrived. A lot of Georgia’s narrative momentum is brought about by others – her sister creates the list, love interest Jack sets the ball in motion to achieving a lot of them, and more often than not Georgia just turns up and lets life happen. In fact, a lot of the novel feels like it skims the surface, jumping through the list and only adding complications as an afterthought, meaning they often come about without warning and are quickly glossed over again too.
Even so, reading this novel is a lot like sitting down to catch up with an old friend, and Beirne has a knack for seeing the humour in everyday life. Most heartening, though, is Georgia and Amy’s strong relationship which, while being a little too dependent or even possessive at times, served as the strongest aspect of the novel. You believe that Georgia wants to make her sister proud and that she would be willing to push herself beyond her comfort levels in tribute to the sister who she’s looked up to her entire life.
The List that Changed My Life may feel a bit formulaic, ticking off a lot of the hallmarks of contemporary fiction as it goes, but at its heart this novel really is something altogether more charming. There’s an inspiring message underlining this story, and a reminder to challenge yourself and embrace new opportunities wherever possible. It’s a lovely message, and it’s one that’s made a lot more effective when it’s told with a likeable character in such a warm, easy package.
The List That Changed My Life is published by Headline on 21 February 2019