Victoria Redel’s “Before Everything” tells the story of a dying woman in her 50s and the “Old Friends” who leave their complicated lives to be with her, for just a little longer. The author will read July 12 at Elliott Bay Book Co.
by Victoria Redel
Viking, $26, 274 pp.
“This, Helen thought, this is what Anna will do. She will teach us all how to do this thing we don’t know how to do.”
That thing is life’s end — coming too soon, to a woman in her 50s. In Victoria Redel’s gentle, rich novel “Before Everything,” Anna is the center of a group of five friends; a bond held tightly since childhood, when they christened their quintet “The Old Friends.” Now Anna’s long journey with cancer has no more bends in its road: She is dying, and Helen, Ming, Molly and Caroline have left their complicated lives to be with her, for just a little longer.
Written in an impressionistic series of chapters and subchapters (each with its own brief title), floating back and forth between the group’s past and present, “Before Everything” creates a tight, vivid world; you picture Anna at the center of a circle, with the four others (and Anna’s semi-estranged husband, Reuben) arranged around the edge, looking inward. “The world steeply fell away. The morning news, the headline lost. No big world. Even their lives at home tapered to a few images. Just Anna.”
The author of “Before Everything,” joined by author Julia Fierro (“The Gypsy Moth Summer”), will read at 7 p.m. July 12 at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
An unfussy but poetic writer (the phrase “the creamy, warm spread of soup” feels perfect — it’s the unexpected “spread”), Redel makes the reader part of the circle; we come to know and love Anna as her friends do. And we observe sadly as the writing from Anna’s point of view becomes slowly more blurry; the person, before our eyes, begins to fade away. Anna was, we learn, someone who wasn’t much of a reader: “She wasn’t interested in difficult narratives. She liked stories where you got close to a character.” Both terribly sad and unexpectedly companionable, this quiet book does just that.
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