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‘We All Want Impossible Things’ Review: An Unrealistic, Rushed Depiction of Grief

2 stars

"We All Want Impossible Things" Cover.
"We All Want Impossible Things" Cover. By Courtesy of Harper Collins
By Sarah M. Rojas, Crimson Staff Writer

There are countless pieces of literature that touch on themes of death and the loss of a loved one. While other memoirs and nonfiction biographies provide personal insights into the experience of one that is terminally ill, Catherine Newman writes “We All Want Impossible Things” with a spotlight on the family member of a terminally ill character. This narrative choice leaves readers with a one-sided perspective that fails to reach beyond the superficial storyline of generic, overused themes of death and loss.

“We All Want Impossible Things” revolves around the lives of two female best friends. Ash is a middle-aged single mother and the narrator of the novel who cares for her best friend, Edi, a woman dying of ovarian cancer and currently living in a hospice care center. The plot line follows a rather linear, predictable timeline dotted with deeply personal moments: Ash sending Edi her favorite Sicilian lemon cake, Edi sharing her last moments with her son Dash, and Ash balancing her life with her daughter and multiple love interests while also spending most of her days at the hospice care center.

For a novel that covers topics as serious as hospice care and terminal cancer, Newman’s writing and Ash’s narration often feel too humorous and insensitive for the underlying story of loss, death, and grief. The overall writing style feels ingenuine and unrealistic for someone truly dealing with the loss of a loved one. Ash’s character often uses forced, almost offensive language when describing her best friend:

“[Edi is] dying (Dying!) to learn about new music,” or, “She wants me to wedge a pillow under her knees to see if that will take the pressure off her hips, which are killing her. (Killing her!)” While this may represent a realistic use of humor to cope with the reality of terminal illness, the dialogue feels overly trite and takes away from the more important themes of grief that this novel has the potential to cover.

In similar novels about the process of death and acceptance such as “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom or “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi, the main narrative revolves around the last thoughts of the dying loved one, focusing on the philosophical process of accepting death and grieving the loss of life. Disappointingly, this novel seemed to focus more on Ash’s confusing love life and one-off conversations with her daughter that feel disconnected and rather unimportant compared to her relationship with her dying best friend, Edi.

Ash herself is a confusing, somewhat frustrating character and narrator. Ash finds herself sleeping with her dying best friend's brother, Jude, and also sleeping with Edi’s hospice care doctor, Dr. Soprano. This plot line feels extremely unbelievable with unnecessary details about Ash’s romantic relationships that distract from the very real, upsetting process of her best friend's illness.

Newman did offer a few novel ideas and themes about the personal toll of taking care of a terminally ill friend. The sense of place throughout the novel mirrored a sitcom set — the characters seem to monotonously bounce between the same locations, creating a different experience only with their new lines and clothing choices. In the novel, Ash takes the reader repeatedly back and forth between the hospice center and her home, a predictable change of location that makes the novel seem, at first, extremely one-dimensional.

However, through closer inspection, Newman carefully brings the reader between two very predictable places to mimic the emotional toll and monotony of helping a loved one through the process of hospice care: Every day seems to be this unchanging routine of waking up, visiting the hospice center, and coming home for dinner — only to repeat this process day after day. By putting the reader in the narrator’s shoes, Newman reveals how the underwhelming physical transition of daily life pairs with the overwhelming emotional changes that happen every day. While the location of the narrator may seem predictable, her romantic relationships, conversations with her daughter and ex-husband, and of course her time with her terminally ill best friend, create changes and unpredictability in her life every day.

The novel also touches on the universality of death. Novels about loss often focus on the personal connection and the stories that each grieving person holds, without recognizing the cyclical nature of life that every person will eventually encounter. This novel, however, offers insightful quotes that recognize the humbling fact that everyone will experience grief. “Everywhere, behind closed doors, people are dying, and people are grieving them. It’s the most basic fact about human life — tied with birth, I guess — but it’s so startling too… A worldwide crescendo of grief, sustained day after day, and only one tiny note of it is mine,” the narrator writes.

Despite Ash’s unrealistic, romantic relationships with Edi’s hospice doctor and brother, the feeling of being unprepared to console one’s best friend through a difficult time in their life did feel quite realistic. Even in a best-friend relationship, Ash still struggles to find the right words or advice for Edi: “She’s looking into my face, nodding, even though I am fully winging it now, panicking, words pouring out like I’m a hose on the weepy consolation setting.”

Despite a few unique themes and quotes about loss, overall “We All Want Impossible Things” touches on predictable themes of death through a confusing, frustrating account of the narrator’s personal life, the details of which often seem to distract from her relationship with her dying best friend. This novel may make readers question if fiction is the proper medium to explore personal loss, or if stories about death and grief should remain in the memoir or nonfiction space that depicts a much more realistic image of life with a terminal illness and the loss of a loved one.

—Staff writer Sarah M. Rojas can be reached at sarah.rojas@thecrimson.com.

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