Review: The Wrap-up List by Steven Arntson

The Wrap-up List Book Cover The Wrap-up List
Steven Arntson

Sixteen-year-old Gabriela has just received a very disturbing letter. It was sent by a Death – an eight-foot-tall shimmering gray creature with gills. The letter is short and to the point: Gabriela has a week left to live, and next Wednesday her Death, Hercule, will show up to escort her into the afterlife whether she’s ready or not. Gabriela is devastated. Dying is bad, sure, but dying without ever having kissed the dreamy Sylvester Hale is even worse. 

Gabriela isn’t the only one in need of a first kiss – three of her friends would love theirs too. She’s determined to put their romantic affairs in order before her time runs out. There is one last hope, though: Gabriela’s Death has a secret weakness. If Gabriela can figure it out, she might be able to trick him into letting her go…

It’s a week of firsts for best friends, but Gabriela has to play it smart. Otherwise, this week will be her last.

Review:

(Actual rating: 2.5 stars)

The Wrap-Up List is a weird combination of slapstick humor and the weighty subjects of death, war, and racism. Arntson’s endeavor to write a story that’s both funny and touching is an admirable one, but it’s not entirely successful.

I think the story would have been worked better if it committed to being either comedy or drama instead of trying to be both. Individually, the scenes are great – the funny moments literally made me laugh out loud, and the serious parts moved me to tears. However, looking at these scenes in aggregate, I felt a bit confused as to which emotion I was supposed to be left with at the end of the book.

Contributing to the confusion is the fact that Arntson expects the reader to just go with the strange events of the book without offering any background. The story is set in the United States in what seems to be present day, yet there are two noticeable differences between the world I’m used to and the world in The Wrap-Up List. The first is that the U.S. is on the verge of war with an unnamed African country, a situation so dire that the draft has been reinstituted. Arntson never explains what the war is about and makes only a minor connection between it and the rest of the story. It’s bewildering.

The second difference between “my” world and Gabriela’s is the concept of “departure.” In Gabriela’s world, people die from the usual causes: sickness, accidents, war, murder, etc. However, people also die by “departing.” A person selected to depart from the living world receives a letter from one of the Deaths, tall, gray Grim Reaper types who escort people out of this life. After receiving their letter, the person scheduled for departure has a limited amount of time to complete items on his or her wrap-up list, which is basically a bucket list. Once his or her allotted time is up, the person departs, simply walking out of the living world, never to be seen again.

If these events occurred in a fantasy world I could accept them with few to no problems, but the fact that the story is set in the modern-day U.S. makes it hard for me to suspend my disbelief. There’s no explanation of why the rules of life and death are different in the otherwise normal world of The Wrap-Up List, no mention of when, why, or how the Death-guided departures started happening. Readers are expected to blindly accept the new rules and just go with them, which was hard for me to do.

Despite my complaints, there are aspects of The Wrap-Up List that I enjoyed. As I mentioned, the comical scenes are hilarious, and the touching scenes toward the end of the book had me scurrying around my house in search of tissues. I also liked how unpredictable a lot of the story’s events are. There are a few attention-worthy twists and turns, some important to the plot and others less so, yet still satisfying.

Another great thing about the book is how well written the sub-plots and minor characters are. Gabriela’s friends, crush, parents, and grandparents all play relatively small parts in the novel, yet they are all given such depth that I found myself wanting to read more about them. Their individual stories are so thoughtfully developed that they are the main reason I bumped The Wrap-Up List from two stars up to two and a half.

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