This book was a joy. That’s going to seem odd when I explain what it’s about, but it is joyful and full of life. Even though at it’s centre there’s a death. Ash and Edi have been friends forever, since childhood in fact. They’ve gone through adolescence together: survived school; other girls; discovering boys and even that awkward phase of starting adult life, when one went to college and the other stayed behind. They’ve both married and been each other’s maids of honour and become mothers. Instead of any of these things pulling them apart they’ve remained platonic partners in life. However, now Edi is unwell and decisions need to be made. After years of struggle with being, treatment, remission and recurrence, Edi now has to decide how she’ll be dying. With all the hospices locally being full, Ash makes an offer – if Edi comes to a hospice near Ash, she can devote time to being with her and Edi’s husband can get on with every day life for her son Dash. There’s a hospice near Ash that’s like a home from home, with everything that’s needed medically, but the informality and personal touch of a family. Now Ash and Edi have to negotiate that strange contradiction; learning how to live, while dying.
This is just the sort of book I enjoy, full of deep emotion but also humour, eccentric characters and situations. It takes us through a process of how someone’s life and death changes those around them, with unexpected behaviours and consequences all round. Firstly the environment the author creates is so wonderfully rich and full of warmth, whether we’re at the hospice or in Ash’s welcoming home. She does this with layers of detail, from the decor to the people and some seriously mouthwatering food. The hospice is an absolute wonderland – this may sound like a very weird description, but having had a loved one become terminally ill from multiple sclerosis and not cancer, it was a horrible wake up call to realise there was nowhere for him to die. I would have loved to be in this incredibly nurturing environment that’s more of a family home, where they’re putting comfort and individuality first, with first class medical care always available in the background to play it’s part. I loved the busy kitchen with a cornucopia of treats in the fridge, because here no one is on a diet. Each room is very individual, but there’s are little links between such as the hospice dogs wandering in and out, the smell of someone else’s favourite food, the wandering guitar player or the ever present soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof from another room. All of these elements come together and create a warm embrace for Edi, but also for her loved ones who spend a lot of time there.
Ash’s home and family life is so enviable I wanted to be part of it. Her estranged husband Honey is an incredible chef and her daughter seems to have picked up the talent. The author’s descriptions of their meals really did make the mouth water and are their way of contributing and supporting Ash. All of these people are so nurturing, in Honey’s case this is despite he and Ash being separated. Before you think this sounds schmaltzy and sentimental I can assure you that these characters are not perfect. Each has their flaws and their ways of coping, some of which are destructive and possibly difficult for others to understand. Ash particularly has a novel approach to grief, but I understood it. If we look beneath the surface, it’s a way of forging connection with others on the same journey and expressing their love for Edi. It’s also a distraction, a way of leaving all the paraphernalia of death behind and affirming life. That doesn’t mean her behaviour isn’t confusing, especially to her teenage daughter who supplies whip smart commentary, eye rolls and remarkable wisdom. The men in this friendship group seem to understand that their grief is secondary, because Edi is the love of Ash’s life. I enjoyed the little addition of Edi’s other friend – the college friend – who Ash has concerns about. Does Edi like her more than Ash? Do they have a special bond? The author provides us with this loving picture but then undermines it slightly, so it isn’t perfect. We are imperfect beings and no one knows how they will react in a time like this, until we’re there. Catherine Newman shows this with realism, charm, humour and buckets of compassion.
Published by Doubleday 12th Jan 2023
Meet The Author
Catherine Newman is the author of the kids’ how-to books How to Be a Person and What Can I Say?, the memoirs Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy, the middle-grade novel One Mixed-Up Night, and the food and parenting blog Ben and Birdy, and she edits the non-profit kids’ cooking magazine ChopChop. She is also the etiquette columnist for Real Simple magazine and a regular contributor to the New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, The Boston Globe, and many other publications. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family. Visit her website at http://www.catherinenewmanwriter.com