Anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one knows there is no formula or timetable for grief. Mourning charts its own course in its own time. When we first meet Sarah St. John, it is three months after the death of her 22-year-old son, Cully, from an avalanche in their hometown of Breckenridge, Colo., and she has decided it is time to emerge from “hibernation.”
“I guess I feel that I’ve reached that unspoken, societal deadline that suggests you reach for your bootstraps and pull,’’ she says. “I feel like it’s time to start working on getting somewhere else, some other periphery or vantage point.”
“The Possibilities,” the highly anticipated new novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings following the success of “The Descendants,” charts Sarah’s path to “somewhere else” with tenderness, wry wit, insight, and surprising suspense — Sarah’s journey, as told in her own voice, is as unpredictable as it is deeply moving.
Before Cully’s death, Sarah was a single mom who got pregnant at a young age and never married her son’s father, Billy. Now she is a bereft, lonely woman sharing her home with her retired father and trying to reconstitute her career as the co-host of a local television show, an infotainment series for tourists pumped into the hotels of her resort town.
Though she wants to work, it quickly exacerbates the disconnect between who she was before and who she has become in tragedy’s aftermath. “I’m working because I have a mortgage and pride and a father who eats out too much and shops from the couch. I’m here because I need to try to reassemble, to cross the bridge, to outwit the trolls.”
With the help of her friend Suzanne, the mother of one of Cully’s oldest friends, Sarah is also finally ready to tackle her son’s room. As she sorts through clothes, books, and years of memories, she makes discoveries that lead her to believe she might not have known her beloved son as well as she thought.
Then, seemingly out of the blue, a young girl named Kit comes into their lives, ostensibly looking for work. But as Sarah befriends Kit, secrets and revelations unfold, leaving the door open to the possibility that Kit may have known Cully even better than his own family.
Slowly, improbably, and compellingly, connections and tenuous bonds begin to form. For Sarah, her father, and Billy, Kit becomes a link to Cully, a tangible vestige of their lost boy. And for Kit, the family becomes “her portal into all of those unknown spaces” their brief friendship had yet to fill in. A road trip to Colorado College for a memorial event organized by Suzanne’s daughter becomes a crucible for exploring the dynamics of human interaction, especially the charged complexities of family.
“The Possibilities” is more dialogue than plot driven. It is engagingly direct and unsentimental, somehow familiar yet richly, astutely observant and reflective. Hemmings has created a vivid, memorable group of flawed yet likable kindred spirits in whom we become deeply invested, charmed by the realistic rhythms and irreverent non sequiturs of their lively conversations.
She also packs the novel with telling visual and emotional details. Sarah’s confession of how she lost her virginity will ring painfully true for many, and her descriptions of a gas station rest stop are so sharply etched we can almost smell the hot dogs and car air freshener by the checkout, where the group stocks up on Slim Jims, sour cream pork rinds, and “pink balls tarred in coconut.”
The thread of suspense that gracefully pulls the narrative along leads to a pitch-perfect ending that completely captures the promise of the book’s title. It is to be read with a sigh and a satisfying sense of “What’s next?”