No one does trouble in paradise quite like Kaui Hart Hemmings. The Descendants (2007), her daring novel, is a pitch-perfect mix of dark matter and deep laughs—the story of a prominent family grappling with death, infidelity and one another on the verdant island of Kauai.
For the setting of her sophomore novel, The Possibilities, Hemmings chose ski mecca Breckinridge, Colorado. (She lived there after college; it’s where she and her husband met.) Though trading surf for snow, both settings are the type more likely to be found on postcards than the page. “That’s where it all began: as a desire to capture this unique town, this place that people come to spend their vacations and have fun, to show what it’s like to live there and not just pass through—same with Hawaii. The stories of the people who actually make a living, have children and, in this case, go through some hard times,” says Hemmings.
Don’t talk to Sarah St. John about hard times—the tourism TV host is mourning her 22-year-old son, Cully, who died in an avalanche three months ago. Sarah, who never married Cully’s dad, lives with her own father, Lionel, a recent retiree whose interests are QVC and curmudgeonry (like taking potshots at her best friend, Suzanne, a zaftig divorcée). All, by turns, are dealing and not dealing with life, from the petty annoyance of an ice-coated deck on up.
A protean form of the story actually predated The Descendants, says Hemmings, but finding the right narrator took time. Once located, Sarah proved more difficult to channel than Descendants narrator Matt King. “It was a bigger challenge to write from a woman’s point of view who had had a full life with her son and who had tons of regrets and yet hope. It was just a harder voice to capture, and I think I needed time to be able to manage that,” she says.
Hemmings acknowledges that her subjects tend to skew toward devastating. “I always think, ‘God, why do I have to write about that?’ Part of it’s just for the sake of drama, but also, I just think that brings out a way to showcase people at their very best and very worst. I also am drawn to the way they have to deal with everything on the outside. You know grief—you don’t just cry in your room; you have to go out, and you have to buy groceries.”
In the grocery story parking lot, Sarah encounters the mother of another avalanche victim, the insufferable Lorraine, a charter member of Parents Against Avalanche Disaster who wants to win Sarah for the cause. Sarah can’t help it: “I thought to myself while looking at Lorraine, You grieve horribly. I am a classier griever than you....” Nevertheless, it’s a constant struggle not to turn on, tune in and drop out. “Everyone has a tragedy, and you don’t see the whole world sitting it out, excusing themselves from the table because they’re full,” Hemmings writes.
Discoveries complicate recovery: for example, a cache of money and marijuana discovered while she and Suzanne are cleaning out Cully’s closet. She’s horrified, though Suzanne seems to take it in stride: “ ‘After my mom died I found four bags of cremated pets in the back of her closet,’ [Suzanne] says. ‘You never know what you’ll find. I’d rather score weed than dead Pomeranians,’ ” Hemmings writes.
That we’d sometimes prefer a different version of reality is thrown into high relief by the arrival of Kit, who has something of Cully’s she wants his family to have. Awkward and obviously grieving, too, Kit forms an unlikely bond with Lionel, and the four of them—plus Cully’s father—pile into Suzanne’s monstrous SUV to attend an unforgettable memorial service planned by Suzanne’s daughter. It is a masterful ensemble scene.
“I’m fascinated with the way life can turn and take such different pathways based on one choice or just by chance—that you happen to be in one place and there’s just so many ways your life can go. Grief sort of carves out this space for another tunnel that goes somewhere else, so I guess with The Possibilities, it’s just pathways and opportunities and new directions. It was a hopeful title,” Hemmings says.
The entry of Kit and re-entry of Cully’s father portend a brighter day, and yet the low-hanging cloud over Sarah will never go away. “I close my eyes and imagine his possibilities, the different hues of his self, what his face would look like in ten years, the kind of man he would be. He never had the chance to become himself. He never had the chance to be anyone else,” she writes. The ups and downs of life are as assured as the ebbs and flows of tides, the ascent and descent of skiers on Tenmile Range.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York.