A banana for a cupcake was always a good trade.

When you were in grade school, Mom was great about packing lunch with foods you liked, but every now and then it was good to eat something different. So you swapped, just as you did with toys and games and love, as you grew older. But, as in “The Deal of a Lifetime” by Fredrik Backman, what would you trade for a life?

The letter started off innocent enough: “Hi,” it said. “It’s your dad.”

But, of course, the young man would’ve suspected that. He’d always had a father.

Just not one that he knew.

Years before, when the young man was a boy, his father was gone a lot, chasing fame, money, and recognition, never being the dad he might’ve been. There was a time when he knew the boy loved him, but after he’d come home from a trip and it took two days to notice that his wife had left him and taken the boy, the father knew things would never be like before.

And now he was dying.

He’d been told it was cancer, and that his time in the hospital would be his last. Smoking on the balcony (oh, how the nurses hated that!), he noticed a small girl, and she waved at him; never one for children, he waved back anyway, and told her that he’d watch over her one night. Just five years old, she included him in her prayers. She said that she, too, saw the lady in the grey sweater.

He feared the lady in the grey sweater; everyone did. He knew who she was because he’d seen her before, at birth, at age five, at age fifteen, at perilous times of his life. Now she walked the cancer ward with a clipboard, silently and efficiently, and when he stole that clipboard and ran from the hospital in anger and fear, raced off in his sports car, and promptly had an accident, it was she who pulled him from the wreckage.

It was she who made him an offer…

Like many people, you’re already dipping your toes into the holiday season, making lists, pulling decorations from the attic. What kind of gifts will you give this year — or will you, like “The Deal of a Lifetime” — give of yourself?

It’s an age-old question, and author Fredrik Backman asks in a brief, but most exquisite manner. Indeed, at just sixty-five pages with illustrations, this book is short but every word counts and that’ll hit you square in the heart. Backman’s lady in grey is worthy of sympathy; his father-character is regretful and cynical, wearing his loss like a badge he never wanted, but he’s not as savvy as he thinks he is. When that becomes apparent to both reader and character, beware.

You may shed tears over this book. You may need to savor it a second time, to feel its words again. However you read it, “The Deal of a Lifetime” is an experience you’ll never trade.

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