Book review: ‘I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag’ by Jennifer Gilbert

Jennifer Gilbert was only 22 when she was violently, randomly attacked outside a friend’s apartment in New York City. In the wake of that physical and mental assault, Gilbert was forced to reconcile the fact that someone tried to kill her with the knowledge that he didn’t succeed — and that she must find a way to move forward. Piece by piece, inch by inch.

Sound like the plot of terrifying movie? Yeah. It basically was. Gilbert’s I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag: A Memoir of a Life Through Events — the Ones You Plan and the Ones You Don’t is the story of her tumultuous twenties, the aftermath of the attack and her rise to eventual success as an event planner, entrepreneur and mother. It’s filled with hardship and heartbreak, love and loss, humor and devastation — and through it all: determination. The one thing Gilbert’s attacker couldn’t steal.

Here’s the thing: I don’t generally seek out survivor’s stories. Not because I’m disinterested, cold-hearted; not because I don’t feel for others and hope for their recovery. Mostly because I’m a skittish, empathetic reader with an active imagination. If I read about it in a book, it’s not a huge leap to imagine these terrible things happening to me. And when they’re written well, it’s no leap at all.

Such was the way with Gilbert’s tale. I felt her cuts and bruises; I ached when she ached. Her descriptions of life pre- and post-attack were heartbreaking. I didn’t pick up the memoir with a clear understanding of what happened to her — only that she had a great adversity to overcome on her path to becoming a successful business owner. That aspect appealed to me: the one-woman show. The tough, don’t-tell-me-no female founder. It’s what prompted me to pick up I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag, and to be honest? The attack hit me like a wrecking ball. I didn’t see it coming.

So I’m cautioning you. Scary stuff goes down.

But Gilbert’s is not a tragedy. She’s honest about her feelings following her near-death experience: the fear and anxiety and chaos that encircled her life after 1991. She doesn’t sugarcoat things, doesn’t smooth them over. But when circumstances really start to get her down, Gilbert pulls herself up by those metaphorical bootstraps and digs in. She refuses to be a victim; she doesn’t want others to know her story. After her physical wounds heal, the details of her attack begin to fade — and aren’t dragged out for every newcomer on the scene. Her attack is not a party trick or fodder for gossip.

Gilbert turns inward and gets down to business. She becomes determined to thrive.

This story of her road to recovery and path to finding love was interesting and well-paced, and I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag is definitely a reminder to never take life for granted. Gilbert makes it clear that she never craves sympathy; she doesn’t want others to feel sorry for her. I believe she held this story in for as long as she could, eventually finding the strength to disclose what happened twenty years ago when her young son began his struggle with alopecia.

You know, I just really liked this book. It worked for me. The author herself is erudite and sassy, confident and funny. Though obviously wealthy, she never comes across as holier-than-thou — and she doesn’t pretend to have it all figured out. She felt like “one of us,” basically — genuinely. I could see myself throwing back champagne at one of her impeccably-organized parties, dripping in diamonds, or just see us catching a latte in jeans while the kids are in school. Assuming I was, um, a mother in New York City. But you know what I mean.

Fans of contemporary memoirs, stories of triumph, those interested in the event-planning business or anyone who just craves a good read will find plenty to ponder in this memoir. At just over 200 pages, I devoured it quickly and really liked Gilbert. She’s an amazingly resourceful person, a role model — and this is a book I heartily recommend.

Check out a bit of Gilbert’s story below.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062075942 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

8 thoughts on “Book review: ‘I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag’ by Jennifer Gilbert

  1. I too am not a survivor non-fiction fan but this one sounds interesting — I appreciate that there is a great deal of distance between the book’s release and the crime — it sounds as if Gilbert really has had time to chew over, meditate, heal, and come to terms with what happened and try to share what she gained from it. Not sure I could stomach it — but I am kiiiind of curious…


  2. I love true stories like this. I get sucked in, knowing that this isn’t a figment of someone’s imagination, but a flesh and blood kick-ass woman who refuses to give up. *fist pump* It does make one wonder, though, how WE would react to such an event? I think I am strong, but would I be? I have to imagine that if something really bad happened that I would have to overcome, this book would inspire.


  3. Hi! Great review here. I haven’t heard of this & it’s been a long time since I read a novel like this one. The title is really intriguing and I love that you liked the main character so much. I’m definitely adding this to my TBR list! (Hope you did okay during the hurricane!) – E


  4. I think I would love this one. Survivor stories don’t scare me but they do inspire me. Have you read Lucky by Alice Sebold? It’s similar to what this one sounds like and also incredibly well-written and compelling.


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