We All Want Impossible Things, by Catherine Newman ’90, is a lot about dying, a little about cats, and quite a bit about the scrumptious food consumed by a sweet, found family of people who feel tattered and torn and so wonderfully human, you can’t help liking them. My 39th read of 2022, this book left me feeling breathless and small and mortal but also part of a universe that will not ever let me go, not really.
Edith (Edi) is going to die of ovarian cancer soon—in a day or a year, no one knows for sure. Her family and friends move her to a hospice near her best friend, Ashley (Ash). What we learn is that dying is dirty and ridiculous and inconvenient and tedious. It’s not something anyone should have to deal with. So how does this book end up so damned funny? (Hint: Newman’s bio reads, “This is her first adult novel. Not, like, adult adult in the porn way. Just, you know, for grown-ups.”)
Ash, a writer and mother of two almost-adults, spends most of the book at the hospice or on the way to the hospice to bring Edi all the little things she needs, especially lip balm. She is the friend you want by your side when you are slowly disintegrating, but she is also a mess. Not too long ago, she ended her marriage to Honey (who is literally maybe the sweetest man who ever lived) and now finds herself sleeping with several people, including Edi’s brother, Jonah. The problem is that she can never remember to lock her door, which leads to several instances of “ewwww” when her teenage daughter Belle walks in on her and her lovers. It does get you giggling.
But even more striking is the ordinariness of the events that are depicted. There are conversations, dinners, walks, sunny days, snow days, and none of it is ever boring. I think this is because Ash, who serves as the novel’s narrator, is the right amount of self-aware and self-deprecating. And the characters say strange, interesting things to each other. Here is Belle talking to Ash about their cats, one of whom is named Jelly:
“Would it be wrong to have the cats’ arms and legs removed?” Belle says. “I just want them to be more”—she pauses to put the plate down and pull Jelly up into her neck—“beanbaggy.”
All the characters are losing their minds in a way that is familiar if you are human; we can forgive them and ourselves for it. And perhaps that is the point of the book. Here is a work of fiction with no antagonist. It’s about death, yet ironically it turns out to be the most happiness-inducing book I have ever read.
But worry not, reader: I promise that you will get to have your heart broken a few times while reading this book. You’ll be there to see Edi’s body betray her. You will get to feel the rage of dying and of watching a loved one die. The pity and confusion, too. You will be forced to consider the hard decisions around death. You will reminisce, as Edi and Ash do, about a lifetime of memories. You will regret the silliness of your youth, when you arrogantly and unknowingly considered yourself invincible. You will weigh your own capacity to help someone die, then feel a tinge of shame when you pray to never have that capacity tested. And then, the inevitable: Edi’s death will come, a reminder that you too will have to exit the stage one of these days.
The characters are all losing their minds; we can forgive them, and ourselves, for it.
You won’t be able to stay sad for long, though. Not when you are wondering if Belle’s constant truancy from school shouldn’t alarm any of the adults in the book, or if Edi actually did eat the mysterious Sicilian lemon polenta pound cake at Dean & DeLuca in the mid-1990s, and if it really did taste better than anything else ever baked (the exquisite description made me salivate), or if Ash will get back with Honey, who may or may not have a new girlfriend, although he is always at Ash’s house. Orchestrating these lives as she does, Newman seems to say to us that, no matter the loudness of death, we will always be intrigued and distracted by the minutiae of life—and that there is joy in this.
Newman dedicates the book to her late friend Ali Pomeroy. I am glad that she found the courage to fictionalize their friendship, to give us this beautiful, gentle book that says, There, there. It will be OK.
We are not meant to live forever, but neither are we made to grieve without end.
Onjerika won the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing; published a dozen more short stories, including one on Granta.com; then decided a career in qualitative market research wasn’t such a bad thing, for now.