WE ALL WANT IMPOSSIBLE THINGS, by Catherine Newman
There is a type of book that I like to refer to as “really too sad for my taste, but so good I couldn’t put it down, and now I have to tell everyone I know they have to read it.” It’s a long title for a genre, but it comes in handy. “Everything I Never Told You,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Lily and the Octopus” and now “We All Want Impossible Things,” Catherine Newman’s debut novel for adults.
Ashley and Edith (Ash and Edi) have been best friends since they were kids growing up five blocks apart in Manhattan. Now, Edi has ovarian cancer and, after three years of grueling treatments, the hospital social worker delivers the “make the most of her remaining days talk — while simultaneously clarifying that this most-making would need to happen not there.” To add insult to terminal illness, Edi needs to be out of the hospital by the next day. The social worker recommends inpatient hospice care, to spare Edi’s 7-year-old son the trauma of watching his mother die at home. After learning that local facilities have a waiting list, Ash suggests a place near where she now lives in western Massachusetts. The thought is unbearable to Edi and her husband, Jude — until it becomes the one thing in this horrible time that makes sense.
Recently separated (“too cheap and lazy to get an actual divorce”), Ash lives with her two mostly grown daughters. Her sweet ex-ish husband, Honey, lives nearby and comes over to cook, fix things, bring weed and offer general comfort.
Here is the thing about this book. It is excruciatingly heartbreaking, but I laughed out loud on almost every page. And I am not an easy laugher. Newman’s voice is hilarious and warm; her characters feel like old friends. About oversubscribed facilities, she writes: “‘Wait list? Do they understand the premise of hospice?’ We pictured an intake coordinator making endless calls, crossing name after name off her list. ‘Yes, yes. I see. Maybe next time!’”
Perhaps because I’m of similar age to Ash and Edi and grew up in the New York metropolitan area with the same local commercials (Crazy Eddie, Technical Career Institute), I had so many sparks of recognition. I texted my brothers at the part when, as a 10-year-old, Edi recorded herself singing “Maybe” from “Annie” over her brother’s Torah portion; I, too, found a tape recorder and microphone too attractive to resist. (Every time the rabbi saw me he would sing, “Maybe in a HOUSE. …”)
The hospice is a warm, soft place where everyone has the vibe of a gentle hug. There’s a cheese-loving golden retriever named Farrah Fawcett who runs from room to room; a handsome guitar player who strums James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and the Beatles; a doctor who looks so much like James Gandolfini they nickname him Dr. Soprano. The patient in the room next to Edi watches “Fiddler on the Roof” from morning until night, and she and another man in the hospice are needing their rooms for much longer than expected. If you’ve ever been in a hospice, you know that there are stories of people who leave alive, and you always hope that might be your person.
At one point, they hear a baby crying in the hospice and wonder who on earth would bring a baby to a hospice, only later realizing that the baby is a patient. It then becomes clear that there are different degrees of unbearable.
On a much lighter note, what is Ash doing about her husband? They seem perfect together, but Ash isn’t seeing it. Instead, she bumbles around sleeping with various people and getting caught by her daughter. All the while, Ash is losing her touchstone. As she puts it, “Edi’s memory is like the backup hard drive for mine.”
After a little impromptu party in Edi’s room, Ash looks around and says: “It’s just Edi and me and lots of fake flowers and real plants and inspirational sayings. THE WAY TO HAVE A FRIEND IS TO BE ONE, reads a needlepoint pillow. True! GOOD LUCK! reads a helium balloon, floating up by the ceiling. Good luck dying!”
Edi remembers a Sicilian lemon polenta poundcake she once had at Dean & DeLuca in the mid-90s; it becomes her holy grail. She starts to think she might have imagined it, and Ash resolves to locate the cake through extreme efforts. (She finds the original baker and begs for the recipe.) The elusive poundcake becomes a way to cheer up Edi: “I climb into her bed and tell her about the Cake — the same way, when tiny children are mad or unhappy, you might distract them with a little box of raisins. And I’ll tell you: Nobody wants a box of raisins when they’re furious. Or when they’re dying, for that matter.” Raisins become her shorthand for disappointing distractions. “‘Hey! … I brought nail polish!’ Who wants raisins?!”
Oh, how I felt this! Don’t we all wish we could fix terrible things? Instead of having a cure for cancer, we’re stuck with raisins. Edi has something else, too: a lifelong friendship. It may not be a cure, but it provides sustenance, comfort and wit — not only for the patient but for anyone who reads this winning novel.
Julie Klam’s most recent book is “The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters.”
WE ALL WANT IMPOSSIBLE THINGS | By Catherine Newman | 224 pp. | Harper/HarperCollins Publishers | $25.99
Source: NY Times