What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas (Scribner, 2015)
Book review by Joanne Nelson
Reading Abigail Thomas’s most recent memoir is like sinking into a comfy old couch with a chatty, somewhat unkempt friend on a warm but rainy day; the room’s all rummage sale knick knacky, and the coffee comes with milk. Abby would be out of half-and-half, but meaning to pick some up. There’s a lot of nodding, some laughing, and a desire, on my part, to tidy up.
As in her previous two memoirs, Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life, Thomas’s style in What Comes Next and How to Like It is intimate and plainspoken—just what you want in a pal. In Safekeeping, a poignant, stripped to the bone look at difficult years of growth, Thomas explores her early adult relationships and motherhood. In A Three Dog Life, she shares another journey; that of negotiating life after her third husband is struck by a car.
Nine years have passed since the publication of A Three Dog Life. Thomas now lives in a large, rambling house with her three dogs—all of whom are elderly, loving, and troublesome. Her four children—grown, mostly loving, occasionally troublesome—have blessed her with plenty of grandchildren to visit and cook for. The structural frame of short chapters, alternating tenses, and the weave of past and present in this newest offering will be familiar to readers of Safekeeping.
Strong emotion is less evident in this memoir than in her previous two; trauma is not—that certainly exists—but just less attachment to and exploration of a given crisis, as if a pragmatism has been added along with the candles on her cake of years. Admittedly, it could also be my emotional attachments to Friend Abby’s difficulties that have changed over time. After all, I’ve also aged in this near decade; my children have also grown up. Perhaps we’ve both gained some wisdom—or at least perspective—on the transitory nature of even the worst of troubles.
Thomas seems well aware of the circular nature of life’s constant disruptions. She believes that “if it isn’t life and death, it isn’t life and death,” and focuses only briefly on any given predicament. She uses these pages to explore her own adaptability to the betrayals, losses, and the increasingly irresistible desire “to turn into a solid,” to nap, that come as she crosses into her eighth decade of life.
What Comes Next begins with Thomas waiting for paint to dry. Mostly she is content and views each moment “as a big La-Z-Boy, or perhaps a hammock.” Painting on glass is what she does instead of “not-writing.” This newfound love of painting busies her, children and grandchildren visit, friends take her out, and there is time galore for those naps. However, more goes on behind the scenes than the easy narrative flow might suggest. Thomas’s existence in her comfortably messy home with a yard gone to the dogs is anything but serene.
Her waiting conjures memories of a story she tried and failed to write about her best friend, Chuck, and her youngest daughter, Catherine. The many years she tried to accurately portray the colors of their complicated history—just as she has tried to portray the correct shade in the painting’s sun or sky.
Years of self-discovery Thomas acknowledges as, “…a long time to get nowhere.”
Still, Thomas muses, “Nothing is wasted when you are a writer.” She recognizes the “need to take the long way round,” to have waited a long time for the structure and words to come out right.
And then she gets on with the telling. The timelines are unclear—a common structural technique of Thomas’s—her memory is poor she admits.
We learn about Chuck. He and Thomas worked together at a publishing company. They become best friends despite significant differences in age (he 27, she 37), marital status (he married, she twice divorced), and number of children (Chuck none, Thomas four). They had been friends for three years the first time he met Catherine, the first time Chuck had come to Thomas’s apartment—no one can remember why; she was roasting a chicken. Thomas carefully describes this first introduction; she notes how her friend and daughter sit together on the couch playing a game while she fixes dinner. “Now and then I looked at them thinking How nice….Her hair was tangled in the back.”
Thomas excels at evoking emotion with a slant telling, the short sentences emphasizing what will become important. The simple “Their heads touching” creating an affecting moment for the reader far more clear than any explanation might. Thomas completes the scene with another short, poignant memory of the evening that establishes the connection of mother and daughter. Before Chuck arrives Catherine surprises her mother with a dish of peaches and cream she prepared by herself. As Thomas eats the treat Catherine comments, “When I grow up, I want to be just like you.” Thomas says, “my heart filled with gratitude.”
Thomas and Chuck’s platonic friendship flourishes. They laugh together, go to publishing parties, learn about each other’s families. Chuck and his wife begin to have children, Thomas dates and eventually remarries, her children begin to have children. Catherine grows from childhood to adolescence, begins and ends college, enters young adulthood, and makes her way in the working world, starting at the same literary agency where Thomas had once worked and where Chuck is now a partner.
Thomas is thrilled. “It was lovely for me that she was there,” Thomas says. “It was a little like being back myself. I imagined Catherine and Chuck laughing over the same kinds of things he and I had laughed at. Sometimes I would take the subway down and have lunch with the two of them.”
But after five years Catherine suddenly leaves the job she seems to love and begins avoiding her mother. Catherine gives no explanation. Thomas worries and can only assume the change has something to do with the recent death of her ex-husband and her daughter’s father. “She wouldn’t answer my calls; every room I was in was a room she wanted to get out of. I thought I was failing her in her grief.”
Over and over Thomas turns to Chuck with her concerns about Catherine and over and over he assures her that she is not to blame. Finally, Chuck invites Thomas to lunch. They meet at a nice place—cloth napkins, ice water. Chuck reveals that he has separated from his wife and admits to an affair that has been over for a while. He speaks carefully, is considerate of all involved, does not name names. Thomas is surprised—how could she not have known!—but tries to be supportive, to provide counsel about the importance of taking good care of his children. She cries remembering her own mistakes, how she’d once heard her older son comforting the then five-year-old Catherine.
It’s not until the bill is paid and she is about to leave that Thomas looks carefully at Chuck, listens as he, barely able to speak, says “Abigail,” and understands that the affair was with Catherine.
“Oh my God,” she says.
“It couldn’t have been anybody else’s daughter,” Chuck tells her.
Now we have one heck of a plot—the easy makings of a movie or book on family destruction. Thomas’s initial relief that “Catherine and I were not estranged” fades and her ongoing pain about the revelation confuses her. Two people she loves loved each other. It shouldn’t be any of her business—she’s all for love after all. And yet. Her daughter fell in love, lost her love, got fired from her job. Her best friend fell in love, lost his wife and his love. And neither told her.
It takes Thomas a while to realize the extent of her anger—and it’s her own anger she most fears. She doesn’t like the way it circles around and materializes long after the original events are over, “like grief.” Her distress materializes in short bursts against the backdrop of other events (Thomas’s husband is hit by a car and sustains brain damage—the primary subject of A Three Dog Life) but never completely abates.
Years after Chuck’s confession, Thomas writes about a visit from a now-married Catherine and her young children. The tension between the two women and the hurt Thomas conceals even from herself continues to leak out in their behavior and language. They dance around parenting issues and house rules while at Grandma’s. Catherine threatens to leave and admits she hasn’t felt welcome in Thomas’s home for a long time. “And suddenly I realize how upset I am,” Thomas says, “and that I have probably been angry for years. How could she have done this thing with Chuck? Is a question I have never asked myself, or her.”
After Thomas finally cops to her continuing resentment, she and Catherine, in the confines of a car—that classic spot of confidence and heart-felt conversations—strip back the layers of damage and remorse that have been left to harm whatever comes next. “Ten minutes later,” according to Thomas, “she is my daughter again, and I am her mother. We are balloons floating in the blue sky.”
Thomas’s responses and quick subject switches can seem a glossing over of painful events. Or perhaps the brief examinations and one-liners (It’s too late for either of us to make another old friend.”) that cover a multitude of moods and timelines simply exemplify how we change with age. With time and the branching of the family tree comes complications and heartaches for an ever-expanding nest of loved ones. For Thomas those heartaches include Catherine’s diagnosis of breast cancer and the possible repercussions for Catherine and her young family. Complications include Thomas’s admission of alcoholism and her ongoing worries about ageing and death. Through it all dogs need tending and naps get taken.
I don’t know if What Comes Next gives us a clear answer about how to like it. Possibilities exist. Chuck suggests “you need to clear a path. What you need is a new approach.” Or perhaps the answer’s been clear throughout the memoir—you need to take more naps. Maybe the answer is simply in the pragmatic crafting of the narrative—time speeds up, things happen quickly, and one way or another messes get resolved.
Joanne Nelson, an educator and writer living in Hartland, Wisconsin, is the nonfiction editor for the Tishman Review.