Before Everything, Victoria Redel, Hardcover, 288pp, June 2017, Viking
It is distressingly easy to find books dealing with friendship, love, loss, and death that are mawkish, manipulative, and moribund in soapish excess; so what a gift to discover a novel that limns so honestly, clearly, and cogently the arc of the sort of deep friendships that define a life, as important and vital (maybe more so) than any romantic or family bond: these families we make on our own.
From the publisher:
Before Everything is a celebration of friendship and love between a group of women who have known each other since they were girls. They’ve faced everything together, from youthful sprees and scrapes to mid-life turning points. Now, as Anna, the group’s trailblazer and brightest spark, enters hospice, they gather to do what they’ve always done—talk and laugh and help each other make choices and plans, this time in Anna’s rural Massachusetts home. Helen, Anna’s best friend and a celebrated painter, is about to remarry. The others face their own challenges—Caroline with her sister’s mental health crisis; Molly with a teenage daughter’s rebellion; Ming with her law practice—dilemmas with kids and work and love. Before Everything is as funny as it is bittersweet, as the friends revel in the hilarious mistakes they’ve seen each other through, the secrets kept, and adventures shared. But now all sense of time has shifted, and the pattern of their lives together takes on new meaning. The novel offers a brilliant, emotionally charged portrait, deftly conveying the sweep of time over everyday lives, and showing how even in difficult endings, gifts can unfold. Above all it is an ode to friendship, and to how one person shapes the journeys of those around her.
Anyone who has ever lost a friend will recognize themselves in these beautifully written pages resonant with meticulously detailed emotions, articulated in a time-leaping mosaic which reads much in the way life is remembered and experienced as we age; in a non-linear sort of time grounded in experiences and impressions, connections seen and discovered, how this thing in this moment reminds us of that thing from another moment, the threads sewn through the fabric of a life, and how keeping track by measuring seconds, minutes, hours, years, yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows gives way to an order dictated by emotional weight and impact — this song takes you to that moment, and suddenly your heart is seventeen again.
With artful technique — not show-offy or obvious — Victoria Redel renders luminously the accumulation of events, truths, lies, pains, apologies, compromises, surrenders, victories, and discoveries that make a person who they are and shape relationships.
From page one we know Anna is dying, the virtuosity of this novel is the way in which it illuminates how the process of someone’s dying doesn’t begin with the diagnosis or end with the death, but, rather, like someone’s living, goes on forever in the ways it affects others, the changes it makes in the world — even in the world of the past and memories, the echoes of the moments of connection — death reshapes all of those things. And, through the accumulation of detail achieved by short pieces of narrative so one is never mired too long in a place too melancholy — the mixing of past and present, the concatenation of voices and perspectives — we, the readers, become as hopeful as the friends that somehow, Anna will survive. We, like the friends, wish for magic realism — a little miracle.
Which is what this novel is, a little miracle of wonderful writing, interesting and human characters, and a heartfelt, moving window into loss and the ways in which even epic sorrow can bring new light and life into being, and teach lessons we might otherwise not have learned. This exchange when Anna is advising Reuben, her estranged but still very present husband, he ought to pursue a relationship with her hospice nurse:
Then, out of nowhere the other day, Anna told him he should marry Kate. “You’ve definitely noticed her,” Anna teased. “I know your taste.”
“Wow, now here’s an excellent line,” he shot back. “My dying wife thinks I should date you.” He was taking apart the four-poster bed. She’d refused the hospital bed until she could no longer refuse. “I’m a real catch, Anna,” he said.
“You are a catch, Reuben. You’re my only regret,” Anna said. “I should never have let us separate.”
“Please, we both screwed up.”
Still, it felt good to hear Anna say, “I abandoned you first.”
How sorry and petty a thing was vindication. The ice trays needed filling.
Such a trenchant, insightful journey in Reuben’s mind, and a powerful realization: there is always the quotidian waiting; an ice tray to fill, a trashcan to empty, a next breath that need be taken. We go on.
And as Anna’s best friend thinks, near the end:
Looking at the faces in the room, she understands that this is what we do. We are here. And then we are not here. For a little while, we are a story.
Yes. This. And the story is both the enormous metaphysical and existential concerns, and, too, the ice trays. Victoria Redel captures this truth by telling one story of one particular death and life and the people it affects, in resplendent style. Truly lovely.