Friends and family gather to cajole, comfort, and/or castigate a dying woman.
In a nonlinear accumulation of vignettes spanning several decades, Redel (Make Me Do Things, 2013, etc.) presents the life of Anna, whose charisma and beauty have, over the years, made her an icon in many lives. When, in middle age, Anna's rare lymphoma returns, she foregoes treatment and chooses home hospice. A swirl of friends descends, and their individual stories are woven into the fabric of her waning days. There are the Old Friends, women she’s known since grade school: 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. The Valley friends, women who for the last 20 years have shared Anna’s life in shabby-chic Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts, are feeling displaced. Her two brothers, both physicians, and her separated-but-not-necessarily-estranged husband, Reuben, are also in attendance, as well as her oldest son, Julian, who confides a secret only to Anna: she is going to be a grandmother. Valley and Old friends alike urge Anna to stay alive, and occasionally she rallies, eating a quart of ice cream and dragooning the Old Friends into an impromptu road trip. In this teeming cast of high achievers, individual personalities are hard to distinguish. Despite being constantly reminded that Anna is a queen bee, a mathlete, and a rock star whose blues band mates adore her, we learn little about her, specifically how she has managed to amass such a vast and loyal following. The prose is accomplished and the images are striking even if Redel can’t resist two descriptive phrases when one will do. Only one scene in the novel lifts it, and us, out of our comfort zone: when Anna crashes a Canyon Ranch–type spa, bringing home to its patrons just how ephemeral “wellness” can really be.
Though Redel has chosen a difficult topic, too often she opts for “a-w-w” moments rather than unflinching confrontations.