The sorrow and the laughter: Amherst writer’s first novel for adults explores the mixed emotional terrain of dying

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 01-02-2023 11:21 AM

Like so many people, Catherine Newman’s life has been touched by cancer. In 2015, Newman, an Amherst writer, lost a close friend, Ali, whom she’d known since childhood, to ovarian cancer.

As painful as that was, Newman also recalls Ali’s passing as a time of heightened love and emotion and even laughter, when family and friends came together to celebrate Ali’s life and give each other strength.

Now Newman has drawn on that experience in her novel “We All Want Impossible Things,” a fierce ode to female friendship and an exploration of the messiness of life, when grief and laughter can often be intertwined.

It’s Newman’s first novel for adults — she’s mostly written nonfiction, including two parenting memoirs, two skill-building books for kids, and a lot of freelance journalism — and her book has been getting glowing reviews, including in the New York Times.

Named an Amazon Best Book for November, “We All Want Impossible Things” has won particular praise for how it grapples with a subject most people don’t want to deal with. As Publisher’s Weekly puts it, “Newman breathes ample life into this exquisite story of death and dying.”

In a recent phone call, Newman, 54, said she’s been surprised but flattered by the reception her novel, published by Harper Collins, has received.

“Maybe it has something to do about all of us living through the pandemic,” she said. “Maybe there’s some more willingness now to talk about death and how we approach it.”

A 1990 graduate of Amherst College — she also works part time as an administrative assistant in the school’s creative writing program — Newman said the idea of writing a novel, or some kind of book, based on her friend’s passing had been kicking around for the last several years.

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“I had the bones of it in my head,” she explained.

Though she’d written a middle-grade novel, “One Mixed-Up Night,” in 2017, writing fiction for an older audience at first seemed “a little daunting … but I thought a story that was partly true, partly fiction would give me a way in.”

And after the pandemic arrived and she became largely housebound for an extended stretch, Newman said she “began writing like a madwoman,” finishing the bulk of the novel in three months in early 2021.

“We All Want Impossible Things,” set largely in Amherst, is the story of Ashley (Ash) and Edith (Edi), middle-age women and mothers who have been best friends since they met as preschoolers in New York City. They’ve shared pretty much everything over the years, from hangovers and hickeys to the joys and trials of motherhood.

But now Edi is dying of ovarian cancer, and Ash, the book’s narrator, has convinced Edi’s husband, Jude, to have Edi moved up from New York to a hospice in Amherst for her final weeks, in part so that the couple’s young son, Dashiell, does not have to witness his mother’s final decline.

Jude jokes that Ash’s plan really involves an ulterior motive — “It’s kind of your dream. Getting her all to yourself” — which Ash pretty much cops to. She desperately wants to be near her friend at this moment, especially considering her own life is a mess.

To wit: Ash is currently separated from her husband, the oddly named Honey, though Honey actually comes ’round the house a fair amount because he’s a good guy and wants to help Ash in her time of need. But Ash is also sleeping with a couple other people, including Edi’s brother, Jonah, for reasons she can’t quite pin down, though a response to grief might be part of it.

“Oh my God, mom, could you be any grosser?” says Belle, Ash’s 17-year-old daughter, when she barges into her mother’s bedroom and discovers Ash and Jonah in bed.

“Don’t slut-shame me,” says Ash, prompting Belle to laugh and say “Fair” — after which she hands Ash a school permission slip to sign. “maybe lock your (expletive) door!” she adds.

Existentially weird

“We All Want Impossible Things” is chock-a-block with these kinds of awkward but funny scenes and dialogue; Newman has a light touch and uses humor to navigate the pain and raw emotion that’s at the center of the novel.

In the Amherst hospice, called Shapely, one patient blasts the soundtrack to “Fiddler on the Roof” all day, a dog named Farrah Fawcett wanders from room to room, and the decor reminds Ash of “a haunted B and B.”

“Hospice is so existentially weird,” Ash says. “It’s like you walk in under a giant banner that says, EVERYONE HERE IS DYING! but then most of the time you’re making small talk and quesadillas, trying to find something to watch on Netflix, or wondering if there’s any pie left.”

Ash makes for a likable narrator, full of self-deprecating humor, including about her own self-centeredness and the chaos of her life (she’s also having a fling with Edi’s doctor at the hospice). She flashes back to scenes when she and Edi were younger, like the time in 10th grade they wore their hair like Madonna in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” or another when they were flashed by a man in Central Park.

Their friendship remains tight right until the end. Edi, in a more lucid moment, isn’t afraid to criticize Ash, telling her to get her act together and reunite with her husband: “That’s all I want, Ash. Just to love and be loved ... But what I’m losing? You’re choosing to give up.”

Ash knows it’s true. “Edi’s memory is like the backup hard drive for mine,” she says, “and I have the same crashing, crushing feeling you have when the beach ball on your computer starts spinning.”

Indeed, the novel doesn’t shy away from the realities of impending death and the exhaustion of caring for a friend as she worsens. Edi’s teeth and eyes become more prominent as the skin on her face tightens, and she soaks her bed when a drainage tube connected to her stomach comes undone.

But Newman says she also “fell in love” with the idea of hospice when she spent time with her late friend Ali in the New York facility where she died. The experience inspired her to begin volunteering about three years ago at the Hospice of the Fisher Home in North Amherst, which she’s also drawn on for her novel.

“Having the novel set in Amherst was kind of a wish fulfillment, a way I could write myself into the last days of [Ali’s] life,” she said. “It made the book easier to manage.”

Thinking back to her friend’s passing at the New York hospice, she said “I was probably more vulnerable than I’ve ever been. I fell in love with each and every person in the room because of the intensity of the moment … that’s something I wanted to bring out” in the novel.

As she puts it, everyone in hospice “is working together with the same goal — to make someone’s last days as comfortable as possible. It’s not like a hospital where you’re trying to keep someone alive against impossible odds.”

Newman, who’s married with two children — a son, Ben, who’s 23, and a daughter, Birdy, just turning 20 — says she’s begun working on a second novel, one that will revolve in part around a family trip. And in January, she’ll fly to London for two weeks when a British edition of “We All Want Impossible Things” debuts.

“There could be something to this fiction-writing thing,” she said with a laugh.

More information on Catherine Newman’s writing can be found at catherinenewmanwriter.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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