It’s been four years since Bree Housley left anonymous Valentine’s cards around Chicago. Meant for strangers, the cards each contained a dollar and a link to Housley’s blog, fifty2resolutions, but the random act was about much more than driving traffic to her site. It was about doing something nice for someone else, unprovoked, the way her friend Shelly Warner always did.
Fast forward to present day and Bree Housley is once again handing out Valentines, this time to the crowd that has gathered at City Lit Books to hear her read from her memoir, We Hope You Like This Song: An Overly Honest Story About Friendship, Death, and Mix Tapes. Except instead of handing out dollar bills, this time Housley is handing out mix tapes. The CDs are an exact replica of a mix once given to her by Shelly and the tracks are, by Bree’s own admission, “not cool songs”. “Step by Step” by New Kids on the Block, Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces”, Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”. A mix so un-cool it’s…well…really cool.
The mix tape is just one way Bree is keeping Shelly’s memory alive now that her goal — do something Shelly would have done, once a week, for fifty-two weeks — has been accomplished. Her year-long journey to experience life through her friend’s eyes was chronicled first on the blog, and now in print. It’s the first book for this Chicago freelance writer and one that is filled with a lot of laughter, profanity, and tears.
Best friends since fourth grade, Bree and Shelly were inseparable until age 25 when Shelly unexpectedly passed away from complications due to a pregnancy disorder called preeclampsia. Downton Abbey fans will (spoiler alert) recognize this as the disease that suddenly and dramatically took the life of Lady Sybil, but they might be surprised to learn that the disease is still common in the 21st century.
Hoping to raise awareness for the illness — and yearning to come to terms with Shelly’s sudden absence in her life — Bree, a natural introvert, documents her attempts to mimic the more spontaneous Shelly for a year…attempts that include posing for pictures with random strangers (including one in a chicken suit), openly sharing embarrassing dreams and singing karaoke (Snoopy vs. The Red Baron anyone?) in a crowded bar. In famous-TV-best-friends talk, this is the equivalent of Felix trying to be Oscar, Skipper pulling a Gilligan, Ethel morphing into Lucy.
Despite the sad circumstances, Housley’s tale yields only occasional moments of heartbreak, its tone overshadowed by her relatable and self-deprecating, if not sometimes hyperactive, sense of humor. Pop culture references are rattled off with lightning speed that will have some wondering if Bree is the lost Gilmore Girl, while other moments are sharp, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it funny — “phone calls were like Elmer’s glue for our friendship: delicious and necessary.”
Through all the laughter, though, Bree is also forced to come to terms with Shelly’s death as she faces major life events — breakups, unemployment, love, marriage — without her other half. While keeping her friend’s legacy alive, she’s also slowly saying goodbye, giving herself permission to move on by embracing, rather than hiding from, Shelly’s memory. That her story might remind people of classic chick-flicks such as Beaches or other blogs-to-books a-la Julie and Julia, Housley readily admits, but then again, neither of those stories ever featured a main character sitting on the floor and eating candy nipple tassels on a particularly bad day.
So has any of Shelly’s adventurous personality rubbed off on Bree after her year of resolutions? Not really. “[But I] got to know her better by pretending to be her, and got to know myself better”, she says. Her blog is also inspiring others to make their own resolutions, a movement she is encouraging with a 12 resolutions outline laid out on her Facebook page. Perhaps not surprisingly, February’s challenge is to say “I love you” to the important people in your life, a challenge Housley earnestly entreats the crowd at City Lit to take up. And in case any of them missed it, the plea is also echoed in the last sentence of her book:
“Lastly, call someone you love. Right now.”