BOOK REVIEW: Daughter of Family G by Ami McKay


“This is my new normal,” Ami McKay thinks to herself during a phone conversation with one of her many doctors. It’s 2001, she’s in her mid-thirties, and has just been informed she’s tested positive for Lynch Syndrome, a genetic mutation that will make her highly susceptible to various types of cancer. 

The diagnosis isn’t a shock to McKay, who has lost so many family members to cancer she has had to keep a running list. In fact her family, beginning with her great-great aunt Pauline Gross, has become the longest, most detailed cancer genealogy ever studied. But despite being prepared for the result, McKay quickly realizes her life is now going to change dramatically. As her mother says, she’s got a big job ahead of her. 

In her upcoming memoir Daughter of Family G, bestselling novelist Ami McKay chronicles in painstaking detail her family’s history of illness. Jumping between three timelines - the first beginning in 1895 when a doctor begins to study the Gross family, the second in 1980 as McKay grows up in Indiana and the third in present day Nova Scotia - McKay covers more than a century of scientific study, profound loss, and personal growth.

By age 49 she’s already lost her mother, an uncle, and various other relatives to the cancers that plague Lynch Syndrome carriers. She’s had a hysterectomy and is being advised to have a colorectomy as a preventative measure, and every year she schedules a variety of tests and procedures and check ups to make sure she’s still in the clear. She lives, as she describes, in an “unsettling state between wellness and cancer.” But amidst the tragic pattern of suffering and death she’s grown up with, McKay’s life is filled with beauty. She is a mother to two sons, a wife to a wonderful man, an author of successful books, and lives in a lovely community in Nova Scotia. Her parents, both of whom have passed away from cancer, were loving and kind, and her siblings, though somewhat distant, support each other. Daughter of Family G is, at its heart, a story about learning to live with the cards you’ve been dealt. Sickness may lurk in the shadows of McKay’s life, but happiness and love are the light keeping darkness at bay.

Daughter of Family G is a beautifully written memoir, filled with lovely, fluid prose and gentle turns of phrase. McKay is descriptive not only of the people in her life, but of the world around her, bringing Scots Bay, Nova Scotia to life in vivid detail. The subject matter is dark at times, but McKay’s writing is a light shining through, as is her genuine desire to live a full, happy life no matter what is going on inside her body. Daughter of Family G is hopeful, it’s thoughtful, and it’s filled with people who are committed to being positive.

McKay brilliantly explores the intersection between her family genealogy and the rise of eugenics in the United States, documenting the bravery and steadfastness her relatives had to embody to prove that there’s was a line worth continuing. The Gross’s are, among many other things, incredibly resilient people, and their story carries this book to incredible places.

I cannot recommend Daughter of Family G enough, particularly to anyone who enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It’s a rare, sobering story that puts the trials of life into perspective, encouraging readers to take advantage of the time they have been given.