The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying

by Nina Riggs


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“Stunning...heartrending...this year’s When Breath Becomes Air.” —Nora Krug, The Washington Post

“Beautiful and haunting.” —Matt McCarthy, MD, USA TODAY

“Deeply affecting...simultaneously heartbreaking and funny.” —People (Book of the Week)

“Vivid, immediate.” —Laura Collins-Hughes, The Boston Globe

Starred reviews from * Kirkus Reviews * Publishers Weekly * Library Journal *

Best Books of 2017 Selection by * The Washington Post *

Most Anticipated Summer Reading Selection by * The Washington Post * Entertainment Weekly * Glamour * The Seattle Times * Vulture * InStyle * Bookpage * Bookriot * Real Simple * The Atlanta Journal-Constitution *

The New York Times bestseller by poet Nina Riggs, mother of two young sons and the direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, is “a stunning...heart-rending meditation on life...It is this year’s When Breath Becomes Air” (The Washington Post).

We are breathless but we love the days. They are promises. They are the only way to walk from one night to the other.

Poet and essayist Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer—one small spot. Within a year, she received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal.

How does a dying person learn to live each day “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty? How does a young mother and wife prepare her two young children and adored husband for a loss that will shape the rest of their lives? How do we want to be remembered?

Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, Nina asks: What makes a meaningful life when one has limited time? “Profound and poignant” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Bright Hour is about how to make the most of all the days, even the painful ones. It’s about the way literature, especially Nina’s direct ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer.

Brilliantly written and exceptionally moving, it’s a “deeply affecting memoir, a simultaneously heartbreaking and funny account of living with loss and the specter of death. As Riggs lyrically, unflinchingly details her reality, she finds beauty and truth that comfort even amid the crushing sadness” (People, Book of the Week).

Tender and heartwarming, The Bright Hour “is a gentle reminder to cherish each day” (Entertainment Weekly, Best New Books) and offers us this important perspective: “You can read a multitude books about how to die, but Riggs, a dying woman, will show you how to live” (The New York Times Book Review, Editor’s Choice).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501169373
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 01/16/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 88,687
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.38(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Nina Riggs received her MFA in poetry in 2004 and published a book of poems, Lucky, Lucky, in 2009. She wrote about life with metastatic breast cancer on her blog, Suspicious Country; her recent work has appeared in The Washington Post and The New York Times. She lived with her husband and sons and dogs in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is the author of The Bright Hour.

Read an Excerpt

The Bright Hour
The call comes when John is away at a conference in New Orleans. Let’s not linger on the thin light sifting into our bedroom as I fold laundry, the last leaves shivering on the willow oak outside—preparing to let go but not yet letting go. The heat chattering in the vent. The dog working a spot on her leg. The new year hanging in the air like a question mark. The phone buzzing on the bed.

It’s almost noon. Out at the school, the kids must be lining up for recess, their fingers tunneling into their gloves like explorers.

Cancer in the breast, the doctor from the biopsy says. One small spot. One small spot. I repeat it to John, who steps out of a breakout session when he sees my text. I repeat it to my mom, who says, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Not you, already.”

I repeat it to my dad who shows up at my house with chicken soup. I repeat it to my best friend, Tita, and she repeats it to me as we sit on the couch obsessing over all twenty words of the phone conversation with the doctor. I repeat it brushing my teeth, in the carpool line, unclasping my bra, falling asleep, walking the aisles of the grocery store, walking on the greenway, lying in the cramped, clanky cave of the MRI machine while they take a closer look. One small spot.

It becomes a chant, a rallying cry. One small spot is fixable. One small spot is a year of your life. No one dies from one small spot.

“Oh, breast cancer,” I remember my great-aunt saying before she died at age ninety-three of heart failure. “That’s something I did in the 1970s.”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Bright Hour includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Nina Riggs, a poet, mother of two young boys, and a wife of sixteen years, was just thirty-seven years old when diagnosed with treatable breast cancer—“one small spot.” Within a year, her cancer was terminal.

Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, even as she wrestles with the legacy of her great-great-great grandfather Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs’s breathtaking memoir asks: What makes a meaningful life when one has limited time?

Brilliantly written, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving, The Bright Hour is about how to love all the days, even the bad ones, and the way reading literature, especially Emerson and Nina’s other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm. It’s a book about looking death squarely in the face and saying: “This is what will be.”

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the book’s epigraph. Nina has included quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson throughout The Bright Hour. Why do you think she chose this passage as the epigraph? How does it frame your reading of The Bright Hour? Do you think that growing up as a descendant of Emerson affected Nina’s worldview? If so, in what ways?

2. When Freddy is back home from the hospital, he tells Nina, “Sometimes I miss the hospital so much I could cry” (p. 28). Why do you think Freddy misses being in the hospital? How was it a place of comfort to him? Both Nina and Freddy remember his hospital stay very differently. Describe how each of them experienced it.

3. One of the members of Nina’s book club says, “The beautiful, heavy [books] have a way of shutting us all up” (p. 60). Why might the “heavy” books stop conversation? Is this true of your book club? Discuss your past selections. Which books led to your best conversations?

4. Nina and her mother both employ gallows humor throughout their illnesses. Can you think of some examples from The Bright Hour? Were there any that you found particularly funny? If so, what were they? What’s the effect of gallows humor on others within their orbit? How do you think that it allows the women to cope?

5. What is the effect of having this book broken up into sections designated as stages? Does it help you better understand the progression of Nina’s cancer? If so, how? Did you like the chapter headings? Explain your answer.

6. How does Nina react when John tells her that he cannot wait for things to return to normal? Why is Nina surprised by her reaction? Were you? Why or why not? What do you think Nina means when she tells John that she has to “love these days in the same way I love any other” (p. 73). Explain the rationale behind Nina’s assertion.

7. Describe the effect that going shopping for a breast prosthesis has on Nina. What prompts her to seek out the experience? Were you surprised to learn from Nina that “sometimes I prefer the one-sidedness” (p. 180). Why does she feel this way?

8. After consulting her oncologist, who is a mother of a small boy, Nina takes her sons to see the hospital’s linear accelerator. Why does Nina want her children to see the machine? Describe their visit. How does seeing the machine affect them? What effect does seeing the machine through her sons’ eyes have on Nina? Do you agree with the doctor that it’s a good idea for Nina’s boys to see it? Why or why not?

10. Nina quotes Montaigne (“We have to learn that what cannot be cured must be endured”), saying, “You see why I talk to him all day” (p. 122). Discuss the use of Montaigne’s writings throughout The Bright Hour. How does reading Montaigne help Nina? Did you find any of the passages she quotes particularly moving? Which ones and why?

11. Were you surprised by Nina’s decision spend a few days at Well of Mercy after she’s received a terminal diagnosis? What motivates Nina to go to the retreat? How did doing so help her mother? Discuss Nina’s experience there. How, if at all, does this help Nina come to terms with her illness?

12. Nina writes that “Cancer removes whatever weird barriers we sometimes have with others” (p. 37). Do you agree? If so, what is it about a cancer diagnosis that leads to this? Can you think of some examples of this happening in The Bright Hour?

13. One of Nina’s doctors tells her that she should “Listen to what [Nurse Jon] has to say. What he has to offer you is way more valuable than anything I have” (p. 204). Discuss the effect this nurse has on the hospital staff and on Nina. What does he teach them? Do you agree with the doctor’s statement? If so, why?

14. While Nina is back in the emergency room toward the end of her illness, the attending physician tells her, “It’s probably time to put your affairs in order and make a bucket list, as hard as that is to hear” (p. 209). Explain Nina’s reaction. Why is putting together a bucket list something that stumps Nina? What did you think of John’s suggestion? What would you include on a bucket list?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. John describes having Nina’s essay, “When a Couch is More than a Couch,” published in the New York Times as “a dream publication and one that led directly to this book” (p. 309). Read that essay at and discuss it with your book club. How did Nina elaborate on the themes in this essay in The Bright Hour?

2. While Nina is in college, she works at a camp for gifted kids, teaching them creative writing. She recounts taking her class to a nearby graveyard and giving them prompts, including “Write the first paragraph of a love story that begins in [a] cemetery” (p. 35). Try this exercise with your book club and share your opening paragraphs. Are there any stories you’re interested in hearing more of?

3. When Nina’s son notices that she’s binge-watching Chasing Life, he says “So, you’re watching a cancer show. Why would you do that?” (p. 91). Watch Chasing Life or another “cancer show” with your book club. Why might Nina or other people battling cancer watch these shows? Are there any television shows or movies that deal with the subject of cancer that you find particularly cathartic? Which ones and why?

4. Nina writes that her children think she’s obsessed with the word please. In response, she makes “them a list one night. A list they won’t possibly understand for twenty to thirty years, but I am trying to write things down” (p. 75). Discuss Nina’s list. Do you agree with Nina’s reasons? Come up with your own extension of Nina’s list and share it with your book club.

5. Many reviewers have compared The Bright Hour to the 2015 posthumous memoir When Breath Becomes Air by neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi. Have your book club read When Breath Becomes Air and discuss how the perspective of a physician versus a poet changes the message in the memoirs. What common themes come up in both books?

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