Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Before Everything

Title:  Before Everything
Author:  Victoria Redel
Publication Information:  Viking. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0735222576 / 978-0735222571

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "On a late March day when you could taste springs muddy tang, Anna was given results from the latest scans."

Favorite Quote:  "You couldn't get away with anything. Which was, of course, horrible and the very best things about having been friends forever."

The description of this book checks so many boxes of a sweet, nostalgic summer read. It is a story about women and about friendships that have lasted a lifetime. It is a story about family. It is a story about strong emotions as one woman enters hospice care, and the friends and family who surround her deal with that reality and try to make the most of the time left.

Anna is dying. Her friends, particularly best friends and "The Old Friends" Helen, Caroline, Molly, and Ming, gather around for grief, for comfort, and for support. Anna's family, particularly her estranged husband Reuben is also part of Anna's caregivers. The book weaves between the present of everyone waiting for Anna's impending death and of everyone's journey through the memories of their friendship with Anna and of their own life.

This should have been a powerful book. Sadly, for me, it misses the mark for several reasons.

First is the character of Anna herself. Sadly, Anna is not a very likable character, making it challenging to invest in her story. Her terrible diagnosis and the fact that she is in hospice care is sad and devastating, but nothing else in the book binds the reader to her. One of the chapters in the book describes her own shortcomings:

  • She'd preferred attractive people. A lot more. When she'd made friends with a woman who wasn't beautiful, she felt embarrassed to be out with her. But also a a little proud of herself. As if that showed largess.
  • She hadn't read enough books for someone who considered herself cultured. There were years she didn't read at all. She wasn't interested in difficult narratives.
  • She saw everyday situations hierarchically. Whose kids were smarter? Whose kids struggled more socially? Who were the athletes, the artists?

This is a book centered around Anna's sad situation, but Anna's story becomes one I am not interested in. I feel sadness and pity for her situation, but I don't find any emotional attachment to the character.

Second is the fact that the book is not just about Anna's story. Each of her friends brings her own perspective, her own baggage, and her own story. The result is a scattered focus, jumping between all these lives that are jumbled together. That is indeed how friendships in real life are - messy and mixed up, but, in a book, sometimes less is more

Third is the writing style. The book is written in short, choppy sections with some only a few sentences long. Perspectives shift, and narrators shift, creating a discordant and hurried note through story that is really a quiet journey towards an ending. The writing style adds to the feeling of too many things mixed together in the book. Yet, at the same point, the pace seems rather slow because the entire book is somewhat about waiting for a person to die.

Sadly, my reaction to the book matches the reaction of Reuben to the situation in the book. "Reuben wanted it over. Not Anna dead. Jesus, he wasn't a complete asshole. but he wanted this dying to end."

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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