A group of lifetime friends gather together to confront life, love, and now mortality
“Everything you want a novel about life, death, and friendship to be—smart, moving, sweeping, poetic, stinging, just beautiful. I loved these women (and their men) and this elegy to their long-reaching bonds.”
—Dani Shapiro, author of Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage
Before Everything is a celebration of friendship and love between a group of women who have known each another since they were girls. They’ve faced everything together, from youthful sprees and scrapes to mid-life turning points. Now, as Anna, the group’s trailblazer and brightest spark, enters hospice, they gather to do what they’ve always done—talk and laugh and help each other make choices and plans, this time in Anna’s rural Massachusetts home. Helen, Anna’s best friend and a celebrated painter, is about to remarry. The others face their own challenges—Caroline with her sister’s mental health crisis; Molly with a teenage daughter’s rebellion; Ming with her law practice—dilemmas with kids and work and love.
Before Everything is as funny as it is bittersweet, as the friends revel in the hilarious mistakes they’ve seen one another through, the secrets kept, and adventures shared. But now all sense of time has shifted, and the pattern of their lives together takes on new meaning. The novel offers a brilliant, emotionally charged portrait, deftly conveying the sweep of time over everyday lives, and showing how even in difficult endings, gifts can unfold. Above all it is an ode to friendship, and to how one person shapes the journeys of those around her.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.72(h) x 0.77(d)|
About the Author
Victoria Redel is the critically acclaimed author of four previous works of fiction and three collections of poetry. Her debut novel, Loverboy, was named one of the best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times and won the Sister Mariella Gable Prize from Graywolf Press and the Forward Silver Literary Fiction Prize. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts and has contributed to the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Elle, O, the Oprah Magazine, Granta, One Story, and the Harvard Review. She received her MFA in poetry from Columbia University and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.
Read an Excerpt
On a late March day when you could taste spring's muddy tang, Anna was given results from the new scans. Anna, who had done it well—actually managed a couple get-well miracles—simply said, "No more."
Anna didn't remember having come out to the living room, but here she was on the couch, and they are here—Helen, Ming, Caroline, Molly—her oldest friends. When had they arrived? Who'd told them? She'd let Helen's daily calls go to voice mail. But no, of course, she'd picked up thinking it was one of her kids. Instead it was Ming. She'd told Ming the whole shebang—from new recurrence to hospice. Didn't give any room for questions. "You'll tell the others for me."
"Don't." She'd shuddered when Ming said, "I'm coming. Of course, all of us are coming."
Now they were here, her gang since childhood, and it felt good to have them gathered in her vaulted living room. Caroline, telling a story about her older sister, Elise, who always has all the trouble. Caroline, describing another of Elise's episodes, but in her usual way, funny, a bit resigned but not sarcastic, never ironic with Caroline, instead always reserved hilarity.
How had they done all this getting here? Anna knew they'd driven—Great Barrington, Manhattan, Arlington, Larchmont—but all that moving seemed impossible. Leaving the house felt impossible. And then the skein of highways, tolls, turnoffs for gas, fishing out wallets from pocketbooks gaped open on the passenger seat. More than even the effort, it seemed the world with its unstoppable movement was an undoable tangle or an extinct language she'd once understood.
"Speak louder," Ming called. Ming was in the kitchen making soup. "I don't want to miss anything."
Anna followed the story. Or mostly she did. She laughed along. Helen laughing her big, optimistic whoop. Molly's eyes tearing up the way they do and her silent, gulpy laugh. And there was Caroline's hilarious way of gesticulating with flexible eyebrows as much as with hands that swooped and sliced the air.
They have done so much laughing, these five, they'd managed to laugh their way through even the unlaughable.
Funny, how even now it was the girl, not the woman, Anna saw, hearing Ming's three-trilled laugh in the kitchen—seeing Ming's compact teenage body, not the rounder, squat shape of middle age. And she still pictured Ming's hair as a gleaming, waist-length, dark curtain, not the professional salt-and-pepper layers trimmed every six weeks.
"Is this too much, Anna?" Helen asked, massaging her feet and legs.
She looked down the length of her body to Helen's thick fingers on her calf. Not a muscle left on her athletic legs. She'd always teased that Helen had the hands of a dockworker, not a painter. Georgia O'Keeffe's elegantly tapered fingers, those were a painter's hands. Still, Helen's hands felt good. It felt good to be touched. She wouldn't have guessed that she'd want to be touched but she did, and when Helen slowed, she stretched the other leg into Helen's lap, nudging it under Helen's hands. I'm going to take care of you, Helen mouthed. Helen, who needed always to make things better. Helen, who'd promised more than forty years ago to be Anna's best friend and had never faltered. She stretched to touch Helen's hand.
Molly tensed forward, rested her elbows on her knees. This was how Molly listened. Muscularly. Her whole body attentive. And, just as Anna knew she would, Molly cocked her head and lifted her dimpled chin toward Caroline's voice.
Anna hadn't been out here in the living room for days. There was almost too much to look at. Every wall covered with art she'd bought or been given. There, on the table, in a blue glass bowl, hundreds of tiny starfish collected at Point Reyes. There, mounted on the wall, the scrap-metal sculpture she'd bought in Provincetown. Clustered on a shelf, mason jars of cardinal feathers. Hours she'd spent selecting and arranging. All the tableaux of pretty—how had she ever done all that? All that going and doing. All that caring for beauty.
Anna closed her eyes. Listened. So entirely familiar the dips and lilts of her friends' voices. Even Caroline's pauses to find a more exact word were familiar. She couldn't explain it, the ease she felt. She wouldn't have imagined this. Part of the easiness was that she no longer had to try.
The Old Friends
End of sixth grade, they made it their official name. It was a joke one afternoon, but they liked the way it sounded. Permanent. The Old Friends. A declaration that anyone who came into their lives, maybe next year in seventh grade or later in high school, anyone else might be new and exciting, even counted as a friend for life, but not part of The Old Friends. Not like they're running to stencil T-shirts or roll out an official announcement and cheer. But they love the way it sounds. Like a rock band. Or a mystery series. This way, the five girls agree, it's just a fact. And ours forever.
Days earlier the eldest boy was alone in the room with her.
"Momma." He held her hand.
She nodded her head to show she was awake.
"Mom, I have a secret to tell you."
She smiled. He was her first child. Now a grown man. Oh, those years she'd spent unnecessarily worrying about Julian. Shy boy, the one to play at the corner of the school yard where the pavement yielded to weedy scrub, a boy poking sticks into dirt, serious and happy and unworried about kids whizzing past him. "Got you!" they screamed, tagging a shoulder, not his. At pickup she'd ached watching him happy alone. She'd wanted him to be in the center of the playing field calling teams, the one named captain.
Now here he was, a gentle man, still quiet, with a boy's stuttery laugh, still happiest in the woods foraging for black morels and ramps.
"Mom," Julian said again, "I have a secret."
"Can you open your eyes?"
She'd do anything for him. Her eyes were so heavy, nickel-lidded, heavier even than the given doses, heavy with some thickness she could feel weighted in her bones, in her blood.
She opened her eyes.
Beautiful. It was his father's face he wore, that halo of curly dark hair. The light was behind him. She saw the lace of the curtains and, through the curtains, the trees of the yard. Her lace, her window with her crystal hanging on filament and the yard where her three children had played. So slightly hers, any of it, anymore.
He said, "We're having a baby."
There was a rush. Happiness left for the having. Even in these last days, she'd felt happiness, momentary, sometimes sharp almost like pain. Here, though, was the apex.
"We don't want anyone to know. Not yet. But we want you to know."
The baby of her first baby. She had loved the shape of him unborn inside of her so much that when she came to full term, she hoped for a long birth, wanting, she said, for each moment to be exceptional, hers to savor, and then the joke for years with friends was that after eighteen hours into her labor, curled into some jagged harbor of agony, she had begged for drugs. But at the end there was this child, perfect lips, hands, feet, and she was forever changed.
She sat up in the bed and kissed her son. "You'll be a wonderful father," she whispered. She kept a hand at his shoulder and looked at him, working to make her face clear and direct. She wanted him to have this. His mother beholding the father he was becoming.
There was wind through the window, spring air, a last, best secret.
She smiled. "I won't tell a soul."
"I'd be lying if I didn't say you've looked better." Helen thumbed into Anna's arch. "But we'll find our way through this one, too." She pressed her paint-stained fingers up the long, ropy thread of Anna's shin. No muscle left to squeeze. Her stubby hands pawed wide, overlapping Anna's leg.
"There's only one way through this time, Heli," Anna said.
"That's not true," Helen said quickly. "But we have all day to figure this out." Anna had been down to bone before, slow walks around the squared antiseptic hallways of hospital units, Anna pitched on a walker saying, "Really, Helen, this is some serious shit." Helen always had a comeback. "Toots, you should have seen your sorry ass a month ago." The Truth—capital T—they'd promised it to each other as children. Easy in the best-friend flush at seven or the high romance of twelve. A challenge as they got older and truth felt more wobbly, when encouragement was sometimes more essential. Helen thought of the buzz and whir of ICUs, mornings she'd pleat open the curtain, stand by Anna, intubated, sleeping. "Hey, beautiful," Helen would say. "You're missing a lot of cool stuff. So get better already."
But forget truth or encouragement, vigilance mattered. And Helen had messed up. Big-time. For years they'd called each other every day. Even phone messages deemed contact. These last couple years, with Helen's painting shows in Dubai, Hong Kong, Miami, Paris—she'd called from crazy time zones.
"I'm talking to you from tomorrow," Helen marveled when she was in Sydney.
"So you're still the art world's it girl!" Anna allowed Helen no modesty.
When Helen asked what was new, Anna breathed into the phone, "I'm not inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet, if that's what you're wondering."
"Well, hurry up, sweetheart. We're not going to live forever." And they laughed to ward off disaster.
But this time Helen had slacked off and the situation was going to be hard to unmess. She'd called every day, but traveling made it rough to keep up, and it had been two weeks before she realized Anna wasn't returning any messages. "Hey, love ain't a one-way street." Helen crooned a new message country style while looking out a hotel window in Prague.
Then, a week ago, at a dinner in Rome, she picked up and heard Ming's dredged voice. "You've got to come now, Helen."
Zeus growled. Zeus, the teacup poodle, tangle-haired, bur-stuck—like a tossed-off slipper on the floor below Anna—Zeus out of nowhere, as Helen sat on the blue love seat with Anna, Zeus baring his tiny teeth.
1. Done with IVs. Not ever even one more IV.
2. Done having another round of those thank-God-I'm-alive days—crust-breaking snowshoe walks up the backyard trail to the cliff view or weekend nights swaying close to the microphone, pulsing in rhythms while her band swung up into the last verse of "The Harder They Come"—before a shortness in her chest begins again.
3. Done secretly managing, till she's stopping on the walk from the car to the front door to catch her breath, thinking, This is a just a cold. Everyone in the Valley has this late-winter cold—until the cold spins into pneumonia and Reuben finds her bundled under blankets and the doctor's ordering a full PET scan.
4. Done with scans.
5. Done asking Bobby, the lanky, ponytailed technician, what he sees and him saying, "I'm a technician, Anna. You know I don't read these," and Anna saying, "Cut the shit, Bobby. We've been at this for too many years, so please just tell me what you see."
6. Done with remission.
7. Done with recurrence.
8. Done with the medical team encouraging a new protocol.
9. Done with the truckloads of medicine.
10. Done with that fourth remission, hauling herself back to full gear so that, yes, hello world! here she was—back in the glorious thick of life, everything a peak experience—again back at school running the math center, again out meeting up with friends, again out gigging on Saturday night with her cover band, again her grown kids calling breathy with good possibilities—a job, a romance, all the regular stuff they called to tell Anna when they weren't starting with a hesitant "How are you feeling today, Mom?"
All the Hungers
"I can eat a little." Anna was, surprisingly, a little hungry. She immediately regretted that she'd said it. Too much eagerness on her friends' faces. All that commotion to bring her more food. Impossibly active. And hopeful. Helen propped the beige velvet pillows behind Anna so that she was upright.
"Too much," she said when Ming put the bowl on the cobbler's table. Molly followed, placing a wood board with bread and salmon next to the soup. They looked all too ready to feed her like a child.
"Just eat what you want," Ming bubbled triumphant, when Anna sipped from the spoon.
It made Ming so happy to watch her spoon the cream of spinach and mushroom soup into her mouth. Her full cheeks blushing in anticipation. Anna forced the spoon to her lips again. So that, too—Anna wasn't entirely beyond wanting to make someone happy. Especially Ming. Anna knew she couldn't have managed what Ming had managed—her daughter Lily's seizures. The everyday terror of the grand mal, ambulances, and deadening medications. Then that cutting-edge brain operation. A success, but still a lifetime of children's taunts and all the constant special accommodations—no, Anna thought, it would have broken her to have a child so compromised.
The creamy, warm spread of soup tasted good. There was this, too. Food had been a pleasure. Another kind of beauty. She'd never understood the desire for eating in company. Food was pleasure for the mouth. Talking was also pleasure. But together, less.
The conversation veered newsy. That was a screen. They were always watching, measuring how much she ate.
She cut a small piece of salmon and let it melt against her palate.
Molly worried to the others about a baggie of weed she'd found in Tessa's desk drawer. How much was her daughter smoking? She was so uncommunicative most days. There have been terrible fights. Molly raked her fingers through her cropped hair. "She's not a girl you'd at all recognize."
Anna thought it would help to remind Molly how when they were in eleventh grade they'd snuck out every afternoon that spring to smoke pot behind the woods near school. There'd been no shortage of baggies and film canisters of pot. There'd been no shortage of battles with parents.
But it took such effort to bring the spoon to her mouth, to swallow the soup.
It was enough to think, Molly, it will be fine.
Molly and Serena. Their two children. Once, all of that had been radical—a woman, a mixed-race couple, children—these had been the battles Molly had fought. Eighteen years later they'd all danced at the wedding. Molly had a house in the Boston suburbs just miles from where they'd all grown up. A thriving therapy practice. Now Molly's golden mane of hair was silver, cut in her mother's short, blunt cut. Serena was talking about retiring from her surgery team.
We were children. Give it enough time, Anna thought, and the old friends actually become old.
Then she remembered what her son had told her. His beautiful secret. The beginning of his fatherhood. Was it just yesterday he’d come to her to her room to tell her the secret? These were her dear friends. She should boast to them. They’d share her ecstasy. They had been children together and then they were mothers together. They would know what this meant to her. But she would not tell. These women who could hold secrets. Not even Helen, her ultimate secret sharer. She could barely look at Helen. Still, she would say nothing. She had nothing left to give her son except her word.
Reading Group Guide
1. The novel has a large cast of characters and multiple points of view that include all the Old Friends, New Friends, Reuben, the hospice nurse, and an omniscient narrative voice. Why do you think the author chose this shifting point of view?
2. Redel says she hopes the title “captures those pure moments in our lives—of both innocence and knowing—right before an enormous change.” What does the title mean to you?
3. Redel has described the structure of the novel as kaleidoscopic or symphonic. What is the effect of all the short titled sections within larger chapters?
4. While the novel manages the large subject of death and a patient’s right to stop treatment, why does the book often focus on seemingly mundane daily concerns like food in the refrigerator or filling a car with gas?
5. When Anna decides to stop her treatment, several characters wonder whether this should be her choice alone. Why do you think the author broaches this topic in Before Everything? Did Anna’s story change your own point of view on this subject?
6. Helen, watching Anna both joking with her band members and forcing them to say their final good-byes, thinks, “This is what Anna will do. She will teach us all how to do the thing we don’t know how to do.” What does Helen mean? And is that what happens?
7. All of Anna’s friends have additional life problems and events to manage, while dealing with the coming loss. Why do you think the author made this choice? Wasn’t hospice enough?
8. Anna, Reuben, Helen, and even the hospice nurse, Kate all have secrets. What role do secrets play in friendship, especially lifelong ones?
9. Anna makes an active decision to let her life end. How do her end-of-life choices prepare herself and those around her for her absence?
10. In many ways, the novel is about death, but the friendships remain at its center. In what ways has Anna affected her friends permanently? How have her friendships immortalized her?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Friends come together to support one of their own Before Everything is the story of how a group of lifelong friends come together to support one of their own "old friends" who has decided to not undergo treatment for cancer. Anna has successfully battled cancer before, but this time decides she has had enough and opts out of any possible life extending treatments and elects to go into hospice care. These ladies are very possessive of their friend, and often push away her “new friends” who have also known Anna for many years. I give this book 3 stars because I felt like I knew their heart and motivation. While I understand their desire to help, it sometimes felt that their motivation was a little selfish. Flashbacks sometimes made the timeline confusing. Also, while most of the “old friends” are well developed, Anna herself was not. Peripheral characters add little to the story. The premise of this story is excellent. Unfortunately for me, this was a difficult book to read. I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher in a Goodreads giveaway. A review in exchange for my copy is not required and it is my choice only to share my opinion.
This book was sort of blah for me. I was really surprised it hit me this way. This type of book is usually right in my wheelhouse. It started pretty depressing to begin with. Then the characters were completely disconnected to each other and the reader. I was shocked with the pettiness some of the characters showed. I mean...one of their best friends is dying and they are wondering why they are not liked by the other women in the group. Come on...what's important here! I did eventually bail on the book. I gave it a good ole college try. I made it through a quarter of the book before I decided it wasn't for me. I usually don't post bad reviews because the author works very hard to put a book out in the world. And this is just MY OPINION. I received this novel from Netgalley for a honest review.
When I started reading this novel, I honestly didn't know what to make of it. A scene in the present might take up a page before flitting back to a paragraph-long memory from the past and all the while, the reader is forming an impression of the group of friends who has arrived to rally around Anna. Anna has decided she's not going to try any more cancer treatments and begins hospice. Her ex-husband Reuben, still a good friend, becomes her caregiver. Her brothers and many of her friends take turns trying to convince her to try one last round, which has worked in the past. But Anna is tired and she is ready. The bits from her perspective were incredibly moving, as Redel shows not only the confusion of a brain slowing down but the flutter of memories. I particularly enjoyed Anna's realization of all the things she will no longer have to do, from blood draws to shaving her legs. When Anna's son tells her his wife is pregnant with her first, she thinks about everything she wants to tell her baby's baby and this is a fully internal experience. She begins to withdraw as she sleeps more but we are present to her thought process. Like any group of friends, each person responds differently to Anna's decline. With The Old Friends-Helen, Molly, Ming, Caroline- those who Anna has known since 6th grade, they each remember how they met Anna, how their group formed, and what Anna has meant to them over the years. They consider what Anna will miss, like Helen's second wedding and whatever Molly's teen daughter is going through. The memories from various points in their lives are overlaid into the present. The memories were often paragraph snippets and I usually wanted more but as the book continued, it occurred to me this is how if often is in friendship. I spent a weekend away with my best friends and our conversation would veer from "remember who I took to prom?" to "here's the book I'm reading" and "this is what happened at work yesterday" with fluidity. Redel has given us that same fluidity and I'm not sure I've experienced it in fiction before but it worked. Redel took it a step further by including the perspectives of some of Anna's local friends. None of the Old Friends live by her so it has been an entirely different community that has been there for the day-in, day-out of her years of cancer treatment. They respond differently to her decision for hospice, as one might imagine, as they have vicariously experienced the toll the treatments have taken. The two groups of friends don't know how to relate to each other and it was interesting to watch them navigate their possessiveness of Anna. Of course, it's not always easy to read about someone who is dying. But there was a lot of life and even laughter in this novel. I laughed out loud at a couple astute observations. I teared up at various points. I considered how I'd respond if this was my friend or if I was the one dying. This is a celebration of friendship and a meditation on the impact we can have on one another. It was bittersweet and lovely. It was one of the most honest accounts of friendship I've found in a novel and I'm so glad I read it. Disclosure: I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Before Everything by Victoria Redel is a recommended novel about friendship, life changes, and loss. The group of five self-named "Old Friends" who first met in grade school is gathering to say goodbye to Anna, a member who is dying. She has fought cancer for years and is now choosing hospice care and no more treatment. Each of the women had a close relationship with Anna, and we view their relationships through their own recollections, marked by their differences and changes across the years. Also in attendance is Reuben, her husband from whom she is separated but they are still friends, a group of women who are the new friends, the women she has been friends with on a daily basis for the past twenty years in Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts, her two brothers, and her children. Anna, was a math teacher and musician. Her old friends include: Helen, a painter; Ming, a lawyer; Caroline, the caregiver of a sister; and Molly, daughter of a cruel, abusive mother. recovering addict Helen, now a famous, globe-trotting painter; Ming, a high-powered lawyer whose daughter has a seizure disorder; Caroline, caregiver of a perpetually needy bipolar older sister; and Molly, a lesbian, daughter of a drunken, cruel mother. Then you have all the Valley friends, etc. It is a densely populated book where individual personalities tend to blur unless you are paying very close attention. The story alternates between events in the present day with those from the past until everything comes together at the end. There is no great suspense involved as we know Anna is dying right away and that she is refusing any more treatment. The friends are flocking to her for themselves, in reality, because she has made her decision. That makes the book more of an exploration of past events in contrast with the current circumstances. Although the writing is very good, realistic and descriptive while pulling on your heart strings, we actually learn very little about Anna, her inner life and feeling. We know she's an extrovert to the extreme, a bit self-centered, doesn't like to read, and only makes friends with beautiful women. Why are all these people so enamored of her? I never understood that, and it's kind of important that I do if I'm going to care about her life and death. I'll have to admit that I read to the end of this one rather quickly as I didn't care about these Old Friends and actually felt sorry for the new friends of the last twenty years who were pushed aside when they also needed to say goodbye. In the end I wasn't quite the right target audience for this one. Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Publishing Group.