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Book Review: The Possibilities

By (May 27, 2014) No Comment

The Possibilitiesthe possibilities cover

by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Simon & Schuster 2014


Kaui Hart Hemmings’s new novel, The Possibilities isn’t, in fact, a gamble over whether or not lightning can strike the same place twice. Hemmings’s debut novel, The Descendents, was sold for a huge amount, extravagantly reviewed, then optioned by Hollywood for a stratospheric amount and made into George Clooney movie that was, in its turn, extravagantly reviewed. But if that incredible tsunami of success was a lightning-strike, there’s nothing random about the same thing happening to The Possibilities, which has already been bought for adaptation into a movie directed by Jason Reitman that will likely sweep the Oscars in 2016. Since it would be folly to think none of these extraordinary developments could have any effect on a solitary (now extremely wealthy) author’s composition process, they might not be irrelevant.

The Possibilities begins in sadness: Sarah St. John, a TV hostess in Breckenridge, Colorado, is stumbling through her days unrecognizable even to herself:

At work, I have typically been the happy sort, but this week during preinterviews a caustic side is crossing over, infiltrating my professional life. I’ve become stormy and difficult, mean and sad. If I was confronted with someone like myself I’d feel sorry for them. Then I’d get bored by them and then I’d hate them for their sad, sad story. Each day I start out wanting to do better, to be kinder. Each day I fail.

The tragedy that brought about this change was the sudden death of her 22-year-old son Cully in an avalanche weeks before. The loss numbed her, and the people in her life – her retired father, for instance, or Cully’s ne’er-do-well father, or her sassy best friend Suzanne – are proving to be little help to her in coping with her numbness and grief. When she and Suzanne finally grapple with the task of sorting out Cully’s room, everything in it brings Sarah new pain:

I suppose I wouldn’t obsess over the little things if there were more of them. His room has so few clues. One poster on the wall – Never Summer Snowboards – not too many clothes in the closet, CDs, one motocross magazine, desk debris. I didn’t notice the sparseness when he was here, but now all I see is what little is left.

The Possibilities mainly concerns itself with this great tangle of grief inside Sarah, although Hemmings seldom resists an opportunity for little flicks of social commentary:

Suzanne starts to text someone. The kids are doing the same thing. Boys and girls, some with their arms draped over one another, the majority of them talking or texting or just staring at their phones. Do they ever talk person to person, or just when they’re apart from one another? I should say to Suzanne, Go away so I can talk to you.

But the principal dialogue here is between Sarah and Cully, and that dialogue is hugely complicated when a young woman shows up on Sarah’s nat wolffdoorstep claiming to be pregnant with Cully’s child and raising all sorts of questions about sides of Cully his mother never knew about. Sarah is forced to deal with that new aspect of her son even while she’s struggling to return to the normal non-grieving world:

Cully is dead. He died. That’s why I left work. Good reason, though I don’t really have a good one for coming back, for emerging from hibernation. I guess I feel that I’ve reached that unspoken, societal deadline that suggests you reach for your bootstraps and pull. I feel like it’s time to start working on getting somewhere else, some other periphery or vantage point. I don’t need to move up, but maybe sideways.

There are two things that can be said with certainty about this kind of writing: it’s heartfelt, and it’s bad. Hemmings no doubt feels acutely the Hollywood-ready emotions of her characters (who are themselves Hollywood-ready: you practically want to start casting the book while you’re reading it, starting with Nat Wolff as Cully), but she no longer notices or cares that, for instance, a passage like that last one is anatomically constructed entirely around the idiomatic phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” – and that this idiomatic phrase has nothing to do with grief or even emotional recovery. This kind of referential sloppiness is all through The Possibilities, and in a way that’s understandable, if deplorable: creatures who’ve walked the red carpet at Cannes alongside George Clooney have been transported far beyond the grubby reach of line-editors. Kaui Hart Hemmings will never descend back into their first-reader clutches again, which is good for her bank account but maybe not so good for the Republic of Letters. She lives in a different realm now, but we all still read in this one.