WE ALL WANT IMPOSSIBLE THINGS is an intimate view of a lifelong friendship through life and death

We All Want Impossible Things

By Catherine Newman

224 pages; $25.99

We All Want Impossible Things is a slim novel with unassuming cover art that nonetheless manages to explore life and death through one circle of friends and family. Edi and Ashley have been best friends since nursery school, two vines that have intertwined over forty years. As Ash says, “Edi’s memory is like the back-up hard drive for mine.” 

Edi is dying from ovarian cancer and enters hospice near Ash’s house in western Massachusetts so she can visit Edi every day. You might think a book about a youngish woman dying would be filled with an oppressive sadness. But it’s an often humorous celebration of life with all the messiness that comes with intimate friendships, marriages, work, travels, and youthful misadventures.

Ash narrates the final months of Edi’s life and provides frequent flashbacks that fill in the story of their lives. We come to know them well, both as quirky individuals and soul sisters. If any friends have necklaces with half-heart pendants that fit together, it’s Ash and Edi.

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We All Want Impossible Things provides an intimate view of dying that could not be more bittersweet. Still, Edi displays occasional flashes of wit while she copes with the slow shutdown of her body and mind. Newman masterfully portrays the mundane moments of the death watch maintained mostly by Ash and Edi’s husband.

“Is this it?”  she’d asked plaintively at one point—the only words she’d spoken—and he said something like, I don’t know, sweetheart, but I’m here, I love you, you’ll go when you need to go, and she’d cleared her throat and said, “No. Is this the last of the Pellegrinos?” and he’d said, “Oh! No. There’s more. I’ll grab one.”

One of the pleasures of this book is the depiction of daily life in the hospice. A couple of nurses are key supporting characters, a young music therapist visits Edi to sing and play his guitar, a dog wanders in and out of rooms, and the elderly woman down the hall plays the soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof all day. But Newman does not spare us the details of Edi’s physical and mental disintegration. It makes for difficult but essential reading.

Meanwhile, Ash is dealing with her ex-husband, with whom she maintains a generally friendly relationship, her two children, and a series of romantic/sexual episodes. Life goes on, after all, heedless of the heartbreak and tragedy occurring elsewhere.

In this case, despite its inevitability, Edi’s death is still heartbreaking. But there is so much life in the interactions of Edi and Ash with their husbands, children, and hospice staff that We All Want Impossible Things is a celebration of life and a reminder of how important it is to take advantage of every day we’re given. We lose track of that fact in the midst of our hectic daily lives and, sadly, it often takes someone’s death to remind us of some essential truths.

“Is it better to have loved and lost? Ask anyone in pain and they’ll tell you no. And yet. Here we are, hurling ourselves headlong into love like lemmings off a cliff into a churning sea of grief. We risk every last thing for our heart’s expansion, even when that expanded heart threatens to suffocate us and then burst.”

And after Edi dies and Ash goes through the mourning rituals, grief remains her constant companion. “It’s the deep well of nothing where Edi should be, like if you poked a painful tooth with your tongue, only the tooth was gone, and then you got sucked, tongue-first, into a black hole.”

We All Want Impossible Things is an absorbing read, but a few things nagged at me. Ash is perhaps more self-indulgent than the circumstances justify, and her teenage daughter Bella is so precocious that it occasionally strains credibility. Finally, the decision to place Edi in a hospice near Ash but several hours away from Edi’s husband and young son in Brooklyn will be believable for some readers but not for others. I vacillated between the two positions. It made sense logically, but how often does that come into play when a wife and mother is dying?

Still, I recommend We All Want Impossible Things because its many strengths far outweigh these few complaints. At 224 pages, it’s a fast and memorable read.

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