The play and film Six Degrees of Separation propose that each person on Earth is connected to any other person by only six relationships. The Living Wills, by authors Brendan Sullivan and Rick Kaempfer, posits that human interconnectivity is much more pervasive – instead of people being connected (or separated) by six relationships, six people can be joined by just one relationship.
The novel revolves around a bowling team – “The Living Wills” – and in particular, one member of that team and the intricate and revelatory ways he is connected to the other main characters: Gina, a barista: Reed, an office manager; and Peter, a fledgling lawyer.
Each of these characters lives is damaged in some way, and the damage is a part – a big part – of what connects them. And as each character seeks reconciliation with their pasts, they discover that they can only find what they seek by opening wounds that they thought to be, if not healed, then at least scabbed over. Each of the main characters becomes aware that the directions of their lives have been altered by decisions and choices often made by others.
The Living Wills is a first time collaboration by Chicagoans Kaempfer and Sullivan. Kaempfer is the previous author of $everence and The Radio Producer’s Handbook. Sullivan is a creativity coach, keynote speaker and actor with a background in improvisation – and it is in improv where lies the key to understanding the strange interpersonal connections of The Living Wills. As the lives of the main characters intersect, the hidden relationships are revealed. As each revelation unfolds, what seem to be a series of seemingly bizarre and improbable coincidences begin to weave the threads of the plot together.
Sullivan cites a performance technique from his improv days called “The Harold” as part of the inspiration for the novel’s structure. In short, The Harold is a three-part improvisation piece in which a theme is introduced, developed and re-developed to create incongruous and enlightening connections. In the novel, these connections pop up as unforeseen relationships between characters. It’s the way that these unpredictable relationships keep popping up (seemingly) from nowhere that gives The Living Wills its impetus and its pitfalls. At first, these connections are almost inapropos, but as the strings begin to wind together, the convergence of these lives begins to make sense. However, getting to that convergence may test the patience of a reader’s willingness to suspend his or her disbelief and some may find at least one relationship to be just a little too contrived and hard to swallow (at least I did).
However, the lives of these characters and their quests for resolution and belonging are darn engaging. The character’s struggles, quirks and foibles are very relatable. Who doesn’t have some of their own? It’s a feel-good, kinda corny but clever and earnest story that’s depicted in a well-realized version of Chicago with which both writers are intimately familiar. Its resolution is reminiscent of another film about relationships, It’s A Wonderful Life, and the line “each man’s life touches so many others.”
—Ken Kiernan is a Client Services Manager at Catalyst Ranch and our official bookworm. THE LIVING WILLS will be a part of our Match Books series on January 24, 2012. For more info, click here. For more info about the book, click here.