Hard-won wisdom in Abigail Thomas' 'What Comes Next and How to Like It'

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
Abigail Thomas keeps a cool head amid life's vagaries in new memoir 'What Comes Next and How to Like It'

There's a sneaky sharpness to Abigail Thomas' "What Comes Next and How to Like It" that makes itself apparent only deep into the book. Framed as a follow-up to her 2006 memoir, "A Three Dog Life," it is more a series of short reflections — some as brief as a single sentence — on aging and mortality, infused with her signature sense of mordancy and wit.

Where "A Three Dog Life" dealt with the decline and death of Thomas' third husband, Rich, who suffered a traumatic brain injury after being hit by a car near their home in upper Manhattan, "What Comes Next and How to Like It" first seems like a day book, meandering from the author's new-found fascination with painting to her love for her dogs and the joy and rigor of being a single mother to four adult children and their various kids and partners.

"I don't know where to begin," Thomas tells her friend Chuck, a literary agent. "… What book am I writing? … The one about the three of us?"

"The three of us," it turns out, are Thomas, Chuck and Thomas' youngest daughter, Catherine, with whom Chuck once had an affair. "It couldn't have been anybody else's daughter," Chuck says by way of explanation, although can any explanation be enough?

Catherine was 9 when he first met her; she is the daughter of his closest friend. It's difficult, even treacherous, territory, but still, what to do about it? How to go on living, to maintain one's associations, one's relationships?

That is the true subject of "What Comes Next and How to Like It," which doesn't dwell on the affair — or its implications — but instead seeks to integrate them into the tangle of a life. "I was angry with Chuck," Thomas writes. "I didn't want to speak to him, but the anger made it possible to skip over the part where my best friend had slept with my daughter, and my daughter had slept with my best friend."

I have trouble with this, I'll admit it — as both reader and parent. I project myself into the situation, which is of course what readers do. I want Thomas to rant and rave, to cut Chuck off, to find herself outraged. And yet, here's where the author's sharpness begins to assert itself, for this is not my book but hers, and part of the point is for her to express, directly and honestly, what she feels.

Thomas has always been a calm and generous writer — or, perhaps, it's more accurate to describe her as accepting, open to the vagaries of fate. "[A]lthough I am sorry for his death there is nothing I could have done to save him. Not even if I denied him the little bit of pleasure we'd both grown used to," a character in her collection of novellas, "Herb's Pajamas," recalls of her lover, who dies of a heart attack while smoking a cigarette in her back hall.

Something of a similar aesthetic is at work in this memoir, which tells a story of accommodation rather than furor.

Thomas, after all, is writing from the perspective of her late 60s and early 70s, which means she has seen a lot, not least Rich's death. She is struggling with cigarettes and alcohol, with the prospect of her own slow dissolution, with the weight of time. "It isn't just the dying part," she acknowledges; "it's the thought of the day coming when I will have already been dead five, ten, two hundred years. All those centuries piling on top of me, like so many fallen trees. The fact that I will neither know nor care is of little comfort because I'm not, as yet, dead. The only cure for the fear of death is death."

All the same, "What Comes Next and How to Like It" is infused with equanimity. About two-thirds of the way through, events begin to take place, big events I don't want to reveal. These events are not romantic; they are traumatic, involving Catherine, married now, the mother of young children, and also Chuck, who has cirrhosis and hepatitis C. For Thomas, the only option is to remain in the present, in the never-ending now.

"I hate chronological order," she insists. "Not only do I have zero memory for what happened when in what year, but it's so boring. … The thought of this happened and then this happened and then this and this and this, the relentless march of event and emotion tied together simply because day follows day and turns into week following week becoming months and years reinforces the fact that the only logical ending for chronological order is death."

Here, we have the heart of this memoir — and I do mean heart. "What Comes Next and How to Like It" is all about depth of feeling, the experience of being a mother and a friend. It is a book that takes its time to find a form, a focus, but once it does, all its disparate pieces fall into exquisite place.

"Part of what I've learned," Thomas writes, "is that if it isn't life and death, it isn't life and death. I have learned that every moment is precious." Hardly a groundbreaking idea perhaps, but one that bears repeating. What else do we have but this brief moment? What else but the loose lines of our love and longing, the connections, familial or otherwise, to which we hew?

This is the power of memoir — any memoir — when it's working, and Thomas understands that more fully than most. "What Comes Next and How to Like It" is casual, offhand, until it isn't; it is the record of a floating life until it zeros in. "Don't give up," Thomas tells us, wisely, and with characteristic nuance. "Don't be afraid of the mess." And also this: "The future is a moving target, completely unpredictable. Like the past."

What Comes Next and How to Like It
A Memoir

Abigail Thomas
Scribner: 224 pp., $24

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