Review: What Comes Next and How to Like It
Abigail Thomas writes a particular type of episodic memoir, in which chapters are often just a few sentences or paragraphs long. Safekeeping is the best example of her style, while A Three Dog Life is her best overall. I would place this latest book somewhere between those two in terms of quality. I was disappointed to find little mention of the aftermath of her husband Rich’s traumatic brain injury (the subject of A Three Dog Life) – he incurred the TBI in 1997 and died in 2007. Perhaps given the number of years in between, Thomas felt the time for writing about Rich had passed.
Instead, this book is more about simple, everyday life: her new hobby of painting on glass; her children and grandchildren; napping with her hound dogs; volunteering as a hospice caregiver as a way of learning what’s truly important in life; teaching a memoir-writing class to people with cancer, who embody a sense of urgency about documenting their lives; meeting up with old acquaintances; blind dates going wrong; and being taken aback by the ageing process (she’s now into her 70s). Like Gail Godwin (see our review of Publishing), Thomas lives in Woodstock, New York, close to the city but still away from the fray.
The overarching theme of this memoir is Thomas’s 30-year friendship with Chuck, whom she met when they were colleagues at a publishing company. They took long lunch breaks and perfected the art of wasting time; their proudest idea was for ‘inaction figures’ named Torpor, Languor, and Stupor. Many years afterwards, Thomas was astonished to find out that Chuck was cheating on his wife – with her own daughter, Catherine! When Catherine was later diagnosed with breast cancer, it was an emotional strain for Chuck, too, even though the affair was long over. Negotiating her loyalties to these two loved ones has been one of the central challenges of Thomas’s recent life.
More so than I’ve noticed before, Thomas’s content and attitude are quite similar to Anne Lamott’s. For instance, both are former alcoholics who have jumped on and off the wagon over the years. The observations on writing here are especially reminiscent of Lamott’s Bird by Bird: “What do we use? That’s easy. We use everything. We have our eyes and ears open to snag the lovely and the harsh and the hilarious. There is ruthlessness to all writers.”
“Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid of the mess. The process is a lot like writing. You start with a wisp of memory, or some detail that won’t let you be. You write, you cross out. You write again, revise, feel like giving up. What pulls us through? Curiosity.”
“I am trying to convince myself that failure is interesting…There’s no Indo-European root meaning originally ‘to dare’ or ‘mercy’ or ‘hummingbird’ to make of the whole mess a mysterious poem. I can find no other fossilized remains in the word. Humility comes along on its own dime.”
My favorite individual pieces are just one paragraph each. Here’s a taste of “Chronology”: “I hate chronological order. Not only do I have zero memory for what happened when in what year, but it’s so boring…[it] reinforces the fact the only logical ending for chronological order is death.” In “Hospice,” she accounts for her decision to work with the dying as a volunteer: “I want to make Death a member of my family. I don’t want it to arrive as a stranger.” The chapters are so short that this can be picked up at random in whatever snatches of time a reader has available.
I can see this appealing to fans of Anne Lamott or even Nora Ephron – although Thomas isn’t as humorous in her approach, her thoughts on ageing have a similarly wry quality. This would also serve as an interesting introduction to Thomas’s work for people who don’t like straightforward, birth-onwards autobiographies. It’s not quite as memorable overall as A Three Dog Life, but recommended nonetheless.
What Comes Next and How to Like It: A Memoir releases in the U.S. on March 24th. With thanks to Scribner for allowing me early access to the novel via Edelweiss.