14 December 2017

What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas

I asked for this book as a gift after reading Thomas' A Three Dog Life, which I absolutely loved. It was an amazing memoir about grief and aging and you can read my full review here. This book follows A Three Dog Life but some of the timeline precedes it. I didn't know when I first read her work that before the mentioned marriage in A Three Dog Life, Thomas had actually been married before and had three children. What Comes Next and How to Like It is about how her best friend Chuck falls in love with one of her daughters, and how their friendship survives and evolves past that relationship.

'Why does forgiveness irritate me so much?' I ask Chuck. 
'Because it's the ultimate act of passive aggression', he says."

I will say that I didn't enjoy this one as much as A Three Dog Life but I'm not abandoning her work entirely. She still has other books I want to read. Where A Three Dog Life was written in normal novel format, What Comes Next is short, sometimes half a page or few-sentence 'thoughts' on a particular topic such as her painting, her daughter's cancer, her neighbour's dog, etc. I found this very charming and I really liked most of them, but it did make it difficult for me to invest in any type of story line because there really wasn't one. They do follow a loose sequential order so you understand how things are evolving, but it's still very disjointed.

Thomas enjoying her own book

One thing that makes her writing so appealing is that Thomas is simply a very relatable narrator. She drinks but wishes she could stop, smokes but wishes she could stop, worries but wishes she could stop, curses, naps in the morning, and doesn't brush her hair. She likes to binge watch television. This was one of my favourite passages, I feel this exact same way everyday:

But when it gets dark, I’m off the hook. The day is officially rolled up and put away. I’m free to watch movies or stare at the wall, no longer holding myself accountable for what I might or might not have gotten done because the time for getting something done is over until tomorrow.” 

I found this book very depressing because it gave me so much nostalgia about my relationship with my friend Andrew. He and I have been friends for ~16 years now and we've gone through many different phases of our relationship. There were times when we spent everyday locked up together in his basement watching Gilmore Girls and listening to Jack Johnson, then there were years that went by where we maybe sent three messages to each other. In recent years, we became very close as we were both going through breakups, and since have drifted apart again as we move on with our lives. I think both of us know that the distance doesn't mean we are less important to each other than we once were, but rather our priorities have shifted. It's hard, with a significant other, pets, full time jobs, etc. to make the investments in our relationship that we did in our early twenties. We simply don't have the time or energy. Nevertheless, I love him the same amount as I always have, and I inevitably drew parallels to Thomas' relationship with Chuck as she describes it. 

We've known each other so long that we don't have to talk, and when we do we don't have to say anything. When he asks me if I'd like to take a trip around the world I can say yes knowing I'll never have to go."

While the book is mainly centered around this friendship, other bleak themes Thomas writes about include cancer, alcoholism, and mortality. Thomas' daughter gets cancer and it's obviously devastating to any family. One thing I found interesting is because of the likelihood of relapse once you're in remission, Thomas couldn't even find joy in her daughter being cancer-free because she felt like she was just biding time until it came back. I know this is exactly how I'd feel if god forbid anyone I loved got sick. Thomas also falls into a spell of alcoholism. She drinks beers all day out of what seems like boredom but beneath the surface is actually just her fearing death and trying to die at the same time. It's disturbing. 

There are three things that make me want to drink: difficult times, when I want alcohol to either alleviate the pain or allow me to feel it; clear days that make me want to scribble all over the irritating blue sky; and well, waking up in the morning.”  

Meg and I are also suckers for any kind of writing about grief. I think in some brat-like fashion we each think we've experienced it but we're in for a very rude awakening one day. I loved this passage about grief as she reflects on her late husband:

Grief is different from worry. I don't want to remember what it was like before, eating muffins and reading the paper together on the porch. I don't want to remember him planting the wild grasses that he loved, or the way he smiled at me, or his generous heart. I don't want to remember walking down Broadway holding hands. I am still shocked by what happened. I am used to never getting used to it. But grief overtakes me in the coffee aisle, or sweeping the porch, or smiling at the dogs, catching me unaware. Grief is not a pleasure, but it makes me remember, and I am grateful."

...and this one on anger:

Anger is a luxury. Anger wants answers, retribution, reason, something that makes sense. Anger wants a story, stories help us make sense out of everything. But while we scramble to help those who need it, who has time for anger? Who has time to make sense out of anything? There is only what is. Anger is a distraction. Anger removes me from grief, and the opportunity to be helpful.” 

Being old, naturally she's terrified of dying, but I also think sometimes old people are also eagerly anticipating death in a "let's just get this over with" type of way. My mom's grandma is 99 and I was visiting with her over the weekend. I asked her if she was looking forward to seeing everyone for our Christmas party next weekend. She said no. I imagine being old similar to being 9 months pregnant, you just want to give birth already but you're also absolutely terrified to give birth. I've never been pregnant or old so I really have no clue what I'm talking about.

Thomas and her beloved dogs (doesn't this couch fabric scream cool old person???)

Lastly, I love to read Thomas' rhetoric around dogs. I am a dog person, if you know me I very obviously love my dogs, but the way Thomas writes about them is more admiration than love. It's almost jealousy of their carelessness and lack of thought. Anyone with a dog can tell you they ground their owners. They make problems seem smaller, and offer an unparalleled type of companionship. For Thomas though, they're almost also a reason for getting up every morning and finishing the day. Small routines like feeding them and letting them out give this seventy year old woman with no other responsibilities some structure. It gives me a newfound appreciation for owning a dog. When I'm old, I'll still have to get out of bed to make sure my dog is fed. 

Here's what I love about dogs. They aren't careful not to disturb you. They don't overthink. They jump on the bed or the sofa or the chair and plop down. They come and they go... If one of them is lying next to me and suddenly prefers the sofa I don't take it personally... I used to lie in a lover's arms getting a stiff neck, or needing to scratch my nose, or losing all sensation in my arm, unwilling to move lest the man find out I wasn't comfortable in his embrace..."

I would still recommend A Three Dog Life over this one if you're looking to get your feet wet with Thomas' writing, but this was a good read as well and had some really meaningful moments for me. I always think how I'll make a great old person since I love down time so much, but I obviously can't understand the anxieties that must come with aging. 

If you have a senior in your life that enjoys reading, I think they'd love the humour in this. Otherwise I probably wouldn't recommend anyone depress themselves reading this just for fun. If you like a more traditional story line, or action of any kind in your reading, this particular writing style will drive you absolutely nuts and bore you to death.

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