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Laurel Schmidt
How To Be Dead-
How to Be Dead—A Love Story By Laurel Schmidt FRANCES BEACON (65) is a Longevity Guru and best-selling author of Sex, Drugs and Social Security. She’s at the pinnacle of her career and intends to live to 100. Waiting for the light at a busy corner, she’s distracted by the memory of her lover, MAC. She steps out in front of a cab, which catapults her into the afterlife. She takes refuge in a ladies’ room. GRAYSON, her Transitional Trauma Specialist appears and tells her that she’s dead. Frances refuses to accept the news and begins to plot her escape. Soon she’s summoned to court, accused of reckless disregard for humanity and put on probation. Enrolled in UAL, the University of the Afterlife, she must complete a series of classes to earn the Letter of Transit that will return her to the world. Otherwise her soul will be consigned to Frigus Repono, cold storage. She grudgingly attends classes, skips appointments, drops out, drinks too much in her attempt to evade the lessons about her heart that are her real curriculum—her fear of loving and the pain of loss. In another part of the afterlife, a Committee led by CORNELIUS BEEKMAN, Dutch trader from the 1600’s, meets to consider Frances’s fate. The twelve members from many historic periods, debate and defend her character, while Cornelius insists that she doesn’t deserve another chance at life. Frances is recalled to court where and charged with committing suicide. Back in her room, she receives the court’s final verdict—Frigus Repono. She returns to court and admits she did commit suicide because through cowardice, she killed the person she could have been and the love she could have had. She gets her Letter of Transit. She collapses in her room. Grayson arrives, listens to her tale of remorse then offers her a joint. He inhales and then covers her mouth with his. The kiss reveals his true identity. It’s Mac. He has his own Letter of Transit and they return to the world together.
In her first novel, nonfiction author Schmidt reveals secrets from beyond the tomb, turning out less the love story promised by the subtitle than an epic tale of vulnerability across lifetimes. (There’s a romance, too, of course.) After an opening set in our world in the spry, combative voice of protagonist Frances Beacon, the narrative jumps to a “whitewashed” Afterlife. There, Frances is locked in a kind of Groundhog Day of her own denial—beginning, then refusing, to perform the healing tasks the University of the Afterlife and her guide, Grayson, set out for her. As Frances fights the inevitable, including reliving painful moments of her life on earth, she also gleans insight on the relationship between her death and ideas of reincarnation.

At first, readers will cheer Frances’s obstinacy, expressed through martyr-like outburst of rebellions: “Mandatory? Says who? Who’s running this place, anyway?” Eventually, though, the sheer number of days that transpire, with “Constant Comment” (the voice in her head) and her other emotional deficiencies cropping up like a game of Whack-a-Mole, can drag the story’s momentum. But when Schmidt eventually reveals all her surprises, the novel coalesces. Rich in ideas, How to be Dead explores reincarnation and how history shapes our lives, right up to its last letter: characters from suffragettes to a Victorian life-coach breathe life into the afterlife as the Committee, a group of Frances’s previous incarnations concerned with saving “their collective life.”

These inventive, often feminist figures speak in quick-witted, soaring prose that give power to the themes and context to Frances’s outbursts. Bantering dialogue is a consistent pleasure throughout the book, and the climax, when it comes, is clever: just when readers will be sure that Frances has failed, the novel turns. From there, we learn the story of Mac (the romance), and witness a breakthrough that will ring bells of recognition—and likely trigger tears.

Takeaway: A fiery fictional take on life and death sure to engage anyone who wants to rediscover that “life is a gift.”

Great for fans of: Camille Pagán’s Forever is the Worst Long Time, Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A