Author Emma Grey has published two novels for Young Adults, a musical, a non-fiction book and a parenting memoir, but her debut adult fiction novel is a romantic comedy, The Last Love Note (Penguin Random House 2023), written after her husband’s death in a ‘fictional tribute to their love, an attempt to articulate the magnitude of her loss and a life-affirming commitment to hope’. She has succeeded on all three counts, gifting us a story that is funny, uplifting and warm while simultaneously being a desperately harrowing account of grief and its ripple effects. Grey has taken a devastating situation, plumbed its depths with insight and nuanced understanding, and then enlivened it with a companion narrative about the joy of life, resilience and the determination of those who have lost someone dear to keep living; not merely surviving each day, but finding happiness and grace again despite their sadness.  

This novel travels back and forth in time, from two years earlier, not long after her husband has died, opening with a terribly funny and familiar yet also moving scene set in a supermarket, when ‘widowed’ (she hates that word) Kate struggles for some semblance of normality with a cheerful toddler, thwarted by the fact that even the shaving aisle makes her weep. The narrative then alternates between the present (when the casseroles have stopped arriving and Kate is navigating life with four-year-old Charlie, her dead husband Cam always hovering at the edges of her sight), and episodes from years earlier which provide some clarity about the depth and intimacy of Kate and Cam’s love. The actual present-day narrative takes place only over a few days, yet feels much longer as we’re drawn back again and again to what has gone before, and also because Grey has a natural ability to deconstruct everyday situations into the minutiae of small details that make up every moment.

The wit, humour, outrageous and authentic dialogue and ridiculously funny situations lift this book from a story of loss to a tale of hope, optimism and new beginnings.

It’s probably no coincidence that Kate is a writer, and this is infused gently throughout the story, related mostly to Kate’s ambitions.

The characters are well-drawn, and typical of a rom-com novel or movie, they are meant to be slightly over the top. There’s Grace, Kate’s well-meaning, pushy and supportive friend; endearing Charlie, who could not be cuter or more sympathetic in his basic understanding of death yet his wise insights into life; Hugh, Kate’s boss and one of Cam’s dearest friends, who dominates the story with a certain style and flair; Justin, Kate’s new neighbour (they meet and bond over a potentially live hand grenade … don’t ask); and Kate’s mum, who is every bit as insistent, insinuating, critical and shrewd as mothers tend to be.

The grief in this novel is two-fold: Cam’s death and what that has meant to Kate’s expectations of how her life might reasonably unfold, and their struggle before his death to become parents, with the relentless and unforgiving effort of IVF treatment a constant battle. But this novel also comes with a secret: something, some event or communication or past knowledge, shared only by Hugh and Cam, something Hugh promised never to divulge to Kate. As the story unfolds, this secret and its possible ramifications threaten to tip Kate over the edge as she fears the worst, and wonders whether she really knew the love of her life as much as she thought she did.

There is so much more to unpack in this novel, so many themes and plot points, but to delve any deeper would be to spoil the surprise and spontaneity and yes, sometimes the heartbreak, of reading the book and discovering these aspects for yourself. Suffice to say that The Last Love Note does cover some sad and serious issues, but that Grey has managed to elevate this novel into a laugh-out-loud rom-com with a lightness and joyfulness that I could easily see translated onto a screen.