Emma Beddington

Tears and laughter: We All Want Impossible Things, by Catherine Newman, reviewed

When Edi is moved to palliative care, her best friend Ash keeps vigil at her bedside, recalling their lifetime of shared jokes and experiences

Catherine Newman. [Ben Newman]

Edi is dying of ovarian cancer and she’s craving the lemon cake she once got from Dean & Deluca deli in New York in the mid-1990s. Her forever best friend Ash is keeping vigil by Eli’s bedside in the Graceful Shepherd Hospice in western Massachusetts, trying to track down that elusive cake and keep Edi happy and comfortable with juice, lip balm and company. She’s also ‘whoring around’ (Ash’s words) with a variety of inappropriate people: the palliative care doctor, a substitute teacher from her daughters’ old school, and Edi’s brother. Then there’s her own not-quite-ex-husband, Honey…

That’s the set up for the US memoirist and journalist Catherine Newman’s first adult novel. It’s semi-autobiographical (the dying part, not the whoring: Newman’s own best friend died of ovarian cancer) and wildly readable: a Pringles tube of a book. That’s not an accidental analogy: there’s so much food, you might need a Gaviscon on hand.

Edi and Ash have the wisecracking conversational rhythm of a long-established double act, creating a chatty bubble of love, reminiscences and jokes in Edi’s room. Their duo is leavened by regular appearances from family members and a cast of hospice characters (Ruth, who watches Fiddler on the Roof on a loop, the Ukrainian nurse Olga, Dr Soprano, always pinching food, and a dog called Farah Fawcett). It all makes for a comforting, pacy read; so much so, you forget occasionally where it’s heading, which is clever. The step-changes in Edi’s condition as she deteriorates sucker punch the reader as they do Ash: suddenly you want it to stop galloping along quite so entertainingly.

There’s much else that is good about this book. Newman is understatedly sharp on Ash’s failure ‘to stay in the deep thrum of the profound’; the way that hunger, desire, and inconsequential minutiae – life – always intervene.

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