Before Everything- Victoria Redel
I read Before Everything, a novel, right before reading My Glory Was I Had Such Friends, a memoir (my review here). Both are about a group of friends and terminal illness. And while they took different tacks to explore these topics, the synchronicity was worth paying attention to.
My Review - 4 Stars
"It's the oddest thing. I spent all those years refusing to be defined by illness. I was so insistent, so ferocious about it. Now I see I wasn't. I have the sweetest life. The kids. My family. All of you."
"Do you feel ready?" Molly asked.
"It's not a matter of being ready. Who'd ever be ready to give all this sweetness up? It's that I'm not really here anymore."
"But you say you're happy to be with us tonight," Helen said. She was so relieved that they were all finally together talking. Not about kids. But this.
"I don't know how to explain it. I'm sorry."
"It's bittersweet." Ming licked the spoon's metal. She made no attempt to wipe the tears off her face.
"Just sweet," Anna said, and picked up the next pint of vanilla bean. p. 153-4
When I started reading this novel, I honestly didn't know what to make of it. A scene in the present might take up a page before flitting back to a paragraph-long memory from the past and all the while, the reader is forming an impression of the group of friends who has arrived to rally around Anna.
Anna has decided she's not going to try any more cancer treatments and begins hospice. Her ex-husband Reuben, still a good friend, becomes her caregiver. Her brothers and many of her friends take turns trying to convince her to try one last round, which has worked in the past. But Anna is tired and she is ready. The bits from her perspective were incredibly moving, as Redel shows not only the confusion of a brain slowing down but the flutter of memories. I particularly enjoyed Anna's realization of all the things she will no longer have to do, from blood draws to shaving her legs. When Anna's son tells her his wife is pregnant with her first, she thinks about everything she wants to tell her baby's baby and this is a fully internal experience. She begins to withdraw as she sleeps more but we are present to her thought process.
Like any group of friends, each person responds differently to Anna's decline. With The Old Friends-Helen, Molly, Ming, Caroline- those who Anna has known since 6th grade, they each remember how they met Anna, how their group formed, and what Anna has meant to them over the years. They consider what Anna will miss, like Helen's second wedding and whatever Molly's teen daughter is going through.
The memories from various points in their lives are overlaid into the present. The memories were often paragraph snippets and I usually wanted more but as the book continued, it occurred to me this is how if often is in friendship. I spent a weekend away with my best friends and our conversation would veer from "remember who I took to prom?" to "here's the book I'm reading" and "this is what happened at work yesterday" with fluidity. Redel has given us that same fluidity and I'm not sure I've experienced it in fiction before but it worked.
Redel took it a step further by including the perspectives of some of Anna's local friends. None of the Old Friends live by her so it has been an entirely different community that has been there for the day-in, day-out of her years of cancer treatment. They respond differently to her decision for hospice, as one might imagine, as they have vicariously experienced the toll the treatments have taken. The two groups of friends don't know how to relate to each other and it was interesting to watch them navigate their possessiveness of Anna.
Of course, it's not always easy to read about someone who is dying. But there was a lot of life and even laughter in this novel. I laughed out loud at a couple astute observations. I teared up at various points. I considered how I'd respond if this was my friend or if I was the one dying.
This is a celebration of friendship and a meditation on the impact we can have on one another. It was bittersweet and lovely. It was one of the most honest accounts of friendship I've found in a novel and I'm so glad I read it.
Before Everything is a celebration of friendship and love between a group of women who have known each another 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 another 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.
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Disclosure: I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Affiliate links included in this post.