I started reading The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings on a day when I was feeling particularly glum. You wouldn’t think reading about a grieving mother would be uplifting, but I closed this book feeling totally rejuvenated. Kaui Hart Hemmings created such vivid, real and memorable characters and I enjoyed learning their stories.
I was immediately by Sarah St. John’s unique voice and the Breckenridge setting. I’ve never been to Breckenridge, and it's hard for me to imagine growing up in a resort town and yet Sarah’s narration helped to transport me and to consider her unique childhood.
The book begins with Sarah pretending she isn't a local. She’s “a woman from Idaho, on vacation with friends,” she’s a “newlywed from Indiana,” she’s “an unremarkable guest at the Village Hotel.” She’s not notable. She’s cloaked in anonymity; she’s an everywoman. She’s pretending. We quickly learn that Sarah is a forty year old woman, who newly lost her only son. She’s returning to work, and to life.
Sarah had left Breckenridge as a young woman desiring to be a broadcast journalist. But her accidental pregnancy at twenty-one gave her reason to “whittle life down,” and return home to a smaller universe with less pressing and more immediate choices. Sarah’s son, Cully, gave her life a sense of meaning and she struggles to find meaning after his tragic death. It was strange as a thirty year old woman to consider how appealing Sarah found it to return home at twenty-one. I don’t believe at that age I would have responded similarly; but from the vantage point of the future I was almost jealous of the choice she faced. It’s so easy to look back and wish I had made different decisions. But even while dealing with the death of her son and her lodestar, Sarah St. John is resolute in not doing so. Like many individuals, she is insecure and doubts that she could have been successful with her dreams even if she hadn’t gotten pregnant so young.
In one passage she recalls: “I remember something insignificant just then from college—leaving an interview and not knowing how to get back on the freeway. It’s silly to think that I’ve forsaken an opportunity, silly to think that I could have been somebody when I couldn’t even find the freeway. Diane Sawyer could have done it on mescaline, and there I was in a cul-de-sac asking a girl with a single dread popping out of her head like a cactus where to go.”
This is a clear example of Sarah’s humanity. She is flawed and discounts her talents. As a woman scared to drive on highways, I could deeply relate to Sarah's reflection of her driving foibles; this passage deeply resonated with me.
In The Possibilities, the possibilities are varied. Sarah faces life anew (with new options before her but a totally different world view) and soon has a surprising encounter with a friend of her son that opens her up to one specific possibility. Sarah’s retired father, who shares in her grief and provides a great deal of the comedic relief in the novel, has his own possibilities to consider. And Sarah’s friend Suzanne faces life with the looming possibility of a divorce with her husband who she still loves. And there are other possibilities too for all the young people who come to Breckenridge delaying their adulthood.
In the end, it isn't clear how the story ends for Sarah and her motley crew of family. But the reader is left inspired. Sarah thinks: “I wouldn't have chosen these things to take place, but now that they have, I can’t stop looking, fascinated by my life, his life, just plain life. I can’t wait to see what else happens.” It’s impossible to read such resilience without feeling personally buoyed.
Overall, I came to deeply cherish the characters in The Possibilities and to love the rich world Hart Hemmings created. I highly recommend this book.