Bozoma Saint John’s list of accomplishments is long. She has built a career as a marketing executive, most recently at Netflix, and filled her resume with hall of fame memberships and other accolades. You could be excused for wondering if her memoir is an executive’s story of professional success; this reviewer asked the same question. But no, The Urgent Life isn’t an executive’s guide to anything. It’s Saint John’s personal story of grief and survival.
In 1982, Saint John’s mother fled Ghana with her daughters. Their father was taken into political detention, and Saint John didn’t know when she would see him or their home country again. Her father rejoined the family in the United States months later, but from that point on, the young Saint John was familiar with loss. She later became acquainted with death after her grandmother’s passing, and more intimately so following the death of her college boyfriend.
When Saint John’s husband, Peter, received a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2013, her perspective on loss quickly changed. The couple had been separated and in the process of divorcing, but in light of this development, they called it off. With limited time left together, they knew they wanted to live in the here and now. “We had to make haste, whether that meant moving back in together after being separated for years, booking a trip to our favorite getaway, or eating lasagna before it had time to cool,” she writes.
As Saint John vividly recounts the couple’s waning time together, she also reflects on the path that led them to each other. Their first meeting was acrimonious, but Peter quickly won over Saint John by reading her favorite book, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and taking her to dinner to discuss the novel. His insights impressed Saint John.
The couple fell fast after that, but the differences in their life experiences and upbringings—hers Ghanaian American, his Italian American—became difficult to sort through. Although Peter hadn’t previously been in a relationship with a Black woman, his 6-foot-5-inch, redheaded self fit into Black spaces with ease. He was content to watch Saint John and her friends dance at a club, nodding in time with music he didn’t otherwise listen to as he waited along the wall. She appreciated his comfort in her world while acknowledging that it was because of his whiteness that he was at ease. “There was no place that would deny him entry,” she writes.
The Urgent Life is an unflinching examination of Saint John’s experiences as a Black woman, the difficulties that almost ended her marriage and the love she and her husband clung to in his final days. Facing a life without Peter, Saint John made a decision to live urgently, recognizing that time spent with the people she loves isn’t guaranteed.