A confession: I struggled in writing this review.
I struggled not because this book isn’t beautiful and honest and well-written – all of which it is. No, I struggled because of those reasons. How could I find the words to describe Abigail Thomas’ wonderful work? How could I talk about someone else’s remarkable life in just a handful of sentences? The task daunted me.
What Comes Next and How to Like It is a singular piece of art; as such, summing it up in a few hundred words borders on unfair. In a mere 219 pages, Thomas manages to capture the almost indescribable emotions she’s experienced over the decades as she’s faced life events that would have brought weaker women to their knees, literally. But not Thomas. Instead, she talks about these experiences – the death of her husband, the ups and downs of a life-long friendship, the complexities of her relationship with one of her children – with an honesty so raw and so real, I actually had to put the book down about two-thirds in and take a break. I needed a breath. I needed time to truly absorb this formidable woman’s life, to truly take in her words. I refused to rush.
Thomas’ book follows her down the road as she navigates life in the aftermath of some major events, tracing what her life looks like after she loses a spouse, after her relationship with a lifelong friend is rocked to its core, after she and one of her daughters almost lose each other – twice. Thomas writes about the jarring and the mundane: the meals, sleeping with her dogs, a phone call with a friend, the sometimes endless lonely hours. But there is nothing mundane about her writing, and her message is always clear: this is what life has dealt me and where it has taken me, and this is how I have learned and continue to learn to be okay with that.
Reading What Comes Next and How to Like It felt a bit like looking into Thomas’ windows – ironic, really, as her favorite hobby is to paint glass windows, most often creating blue skies on the smooth panes. And that’s ironic, too, because events in Thomas’ life are often much less than sunny. Perhaps that is why she creates her own light.
I hesitate to give away too much detail about Thomas’ story, because joining her on her path – complete with surprises big and small – is a huge part of the joy of reading this book. But I will share one passage that, to me, sums up Thomas’ book. It is from the essay Scraping, and Thomas writes: “The first time I scraped off most of a painting I turned it over and saw streaky white trees and a lot of Spanish moss. That wasn’t what I’d planned, it was better than what I’d planned.” Those words apply to Thomas’ life, maybe to all of our lives.
Thomas broke her book into small essays, each of which easily stands alone but which also fit beautifully together. Each essay holds a message, each essay is a piece of a theme. Together, they form a beautiful literary jigsaw puzzle. Hands down, my favorite essay is entitled, Too Much, which is a half-page long and which made me laugh aloud. Not surprising, because one of the ways Thomas has learned to be okay is to find the humor in a not-so-funny situation. (Often, that humor is dark, as in Too Much, which I greatly admire; so few authors truly master that art.)
If you are looking for a light beach read, What Comes Next and How to Like It is not that book. But if you are looking for a thoughtful, well-written, honest look into the life of a talented, loving, genuine woman, I could not recommend "What Comes Next" more. I’m adding Abigail Thomas to my list of authors with whom I wish I could eat lunch, and I’m adding her other books to my “to be read” pile. I highly recommend you do the same with "What Comes Next."
Thanks to Scribner for the book in exchange for an honest review.
More by Abigail Thomas: