Ruth Ozeki synthesized this wonderful book: “old friends embrace … the limits of mortality and the boundlessness of friendship.”
As I was reading Victoria Redel’s “Before Everything” the music and lyrics of the Allman Brothers’ “All My Friends” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” kept running through my mind.
Anna is the hub of two group of women friends: those who have known her from childhood and those who have been her neighbors for two decades. They are two distinct circles, intersecting with her like a Venn Diagram.
Anna is dying and all her friends have come to comfort her and reminisce.
The bonds of women’s friendships are different, if not stronger, than those of men. There are endless stories, peeling away the characters of each friend and their interactions with each other, their children and their significant others. This novel is life affirming, not depressing. At times I thought of the “Big Chill”, without the sex and drugs- but a little bit of rock n’ roll.
Anna’s relationship with Reuben, her husband of many years from whom she has been separated, remains close. He is in a separate orbital from the friends.
“But now, oddly it was Anna and him. It would surprise everyone that after the friends left, after her brothers with their unraveled sorrow staggered out, she’d ask him to stay. She could say anything to him. She could be nasty with him. He didn’t flinch. However extreme. She counted on him for that.
She tried so hard with everyone. But not Reuben. She never tried with Reuben. Never had, that was part of the problem. But it was his gift to her now.”
She tried not to be defined by her illness despite being in hospice. However, end of life is a separate sphere.
“Even with all these friends–more than most people could manage or even want– she had a loneliness. She feels it now. It had always been there. Certainly with Reuben, hadn’t there been loneliness? She tried not to let her children see the hem of her loneliness, though they sensed it, the twins crawling into her lap holding her face with their baby hands. She tickled them and hid inside that delight. To be so loved and still feel the clutch of that ragged, tampered place. This was her shame. She couldn’t be rid of it. Or wouldn’t be rid of it. She clutched to hold it. This nub that often felt the truest part of her. Those secret hours curled small, shrimped into herself under the familiar blanket.”
The novel has one minor flaw. It digresses to cover a brother’s participation in the Boston Marathon on the day of the bombing. In my view, this was a needless distraction, particularly since truncated coverage of Anna’s death immediately follows. It is a small part of the book, but a rewrite without it, would keep the flow of the novel.
This book would be an excellent choice for a book club. Women might enjoy it more than men, but for all genders and ages I highly recommend it.