Book Talk: “The Possibility of Everything,” by Hope Edelman

Disclosures: This is a review of an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) requested and received directly from the publisher. The book became available in stores at the end of September 2009. *The purchasing link at the end of the review goes through my Amazon Affiliates account.

The Possibility of Everything by Hope Edelman
Ballantine Books, 2009 (Hardcover) (ISBN 0345506502 / 9780345506504)
Memoir, 352 pages

First sentence: “A ragged, mostly dirt road twists through six miles of rainforest in western Belize, linking the villages of Cristo Bay and San Antonio.”

Teaser: “‘How’s Maya doing?’ Michele asks. She’s been getting the blow-by-blow about Dodo for the past month, but we haven’t spoken for a few days.” (page 55, ARC)

Book description: Rather than quoting and linking to the publisher’s summary as I usually do in this section of a review, I’m going to let the author tell you herself, in this excerpt from a recent blog post:

“(O)ur daughter…had series of ‘friends’ at (the age of two). This alone was not a problem. I had an imaginary companion as a child; my sister did, too. Ours came and went freely, and appeared completely benign. My daughter, on the other hand, talked about one of her ‘friends’ constantly, in a manner more articulate and detailed than one might expect a two-year-old could manage. She described with utter conviction the island where he lived, a whole world she claimed she could see. As the months progressed, my husband and I became more than a little concerned.

Creativity or delusion? We couldn’t tell.

‘It’s a normal developmental phase,’ the pediatrician assured us. ‘She’ll grow out of it,’ the therapist with whom we consulted said. When my daughter’s behavior became mildly aggressive and she attributed her actions to her ‘friend,’ we were told this, too, was within the normal range. But we were the ones who’d witnessed our daughter’s development every day since her birth. We felt that something else was going on, that the rote explanations we were given somehow weren’t adding up.

Our quest to help our daughter eventually brought us to Maya healers in the Central American country of Belize. The trip yielded inexplicable yet effective results–a wholly unexpected outcome for a self-professed cynic like me.

To say some readers have disagreed with the parenting choices I made puts it mildly. Some have labeled me over-reactive and overprotective. The more blunt ones have called me a total nutcase.

What can I say? I also questioned my judgment, my motives, and my sanity nine years ago, and again as I wrote the story down. What kind of mother, I wondered, allows her imagination to tumble into such extreme and dramatic territory? Why couldn’t I sit back and let the ‘friend’ disappear on its own?”

Comments: I first encountered Hope Edelman ten years ago, when I sought out her book Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss shortly after my own mother died. I was intrigued when I learned she’d written a new memoir from a mother’s perspective, and I was quickly drawn into her story.

Edelman discovered that her young daughter had a new imaginary friend when she was bitten on the leg by the child, who blamed it on “Dodo.” Imaginary friends can be disruptive, but the changes in Maya’s personality and behavior since he turned up are particularly unsettling to her mother. Maya becomes increasingly challenging, and Hope’s concerns are escalated by a history of mental illness in her family. She is also frustrated by a perceived lack of support; her husband is working incredibly long hours with a start-up, and she still feels isolated and out of place from their recent move to Southern California. Professional advice doesn’t seem to help; the only thing that briefly improved the situation was a ritual performed by the family’s Nicaraguan nanny, who believes “Dodo” is a malignant spirit. For that reason, and despite her own deep skepticism, Hope and her husband Uzi arrange to bring Maya to visit a shaman when the family takes a winter vacation to Belize. Uzi is open to “the possibility of everything;” Hope isn’t really, but she’s disturbed enough by their situation that she’s willing to try something unconventional.

Domestic drama frames this story, but its heart lies in the family’s experiences with a hospitable innkeeping family, their explorations of the rainforest and the ancient ruins of pre-Columbian Central America, and their visits with two healers.  Edelman’s writing is conversational and full of detail, and her style is open and intimate; I found her voice appealing. I’ve never been especially curious about visiting Central America, but her descriptions of the sacred Mayan ruins made me think I’d like to see them. She brought me along on a journey with her family, and I never felt like an intruder. She revealed her self-awareness and shared her doubts and failings frankly; I was able to understand and empathize with them, even though I don’t think I would have addressed things the same way. (Honestly, I do think she may have been a bit over-reactive to the imaginary friend.)

Openness to possibility and ambiguity is a quality I try to cultivate in myself, and I appreciated reading about someone else’s struggles with it. While my own marriage and parenting experiences are quite different from Hope Edelman’s, many of the challenges and self-questionings are similar. The Possibility of Everything was a satisfying read, and yet it left me with more questions to think about. I think it has potential to provide some excellent book-group discussion.

If you have read and reviewed this, please leave your link in comments or e-mail me at 3.rsblog AT Gmail DOT com, and I’ll edit this review to add it!

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  1. This sounds fascinating! (I'm trying to imagine how a child gets bitten on the leg by an imaginary friend. Did she bite herself?) I'm definitely keeping an eye out for this one. Thanks for the great review!

  2. I can't tell from your review if this book is totally out there, like something only people who believe in astrology could like, or if there's anything to the story. A child named Maya? And the mother takes her to Mayan ruins? It sounds to me like reading it could be like having to listen to someone's dream. But maybe I'm leaping to conclusions too fast; if you found it worth reviewing, I'm not as inclined to dismiss it entirely.

  3. Avis – Oops, I wasn't clear on that, apparently. The daughter bit the mother but blamed it on the imaginary friend – sorry for the confusion!

    Kathy (Bermudaonion) – You might enjoy this one. It's a rather strange story, but it IS true – and the writer seems quite aware of how strange it is.

    Jeanne – It's a little out there, but the writing is very down-to-earth, if that makes sense, and that's part of why it worked for me. Edelman was – and still seems to be – pretty skeptical about the New Age-y stuff herself.

    Honestly, I'm not sure I would have sought this one out, just based on the premise, if I didn't already know the author. I'm glad I gave it a shot, though; it turned out to be well worth reading.

  4. I reviewed this book yesterday too! And I had a similar experience as yours in that I read Motherless Daughter years ago. I really enjoyed this book and loved Hope Edelman's honest writing.

    Loved your review!

  5. Amy – I've added a link to your review :-). It seems like we had similar impressions of this book too!

    Avis – Glad that helped. Sorry if it was confusing originally!

  6. This reminds me of two things that I've seen recently, The Horse Boy and a thing on Oprah about childhood schizophrenia.

    I heard about The Horse Boy from Heather J.'s blog-she reviewed the audio book and I saw the movie. It's about a boy with autism whose parents take him to Mongolia to visit shamanistic healers.

    The Oprah show was about a 7-year-old girl with schizophrenia. It was both exhausting and heartbreaking to watch, and the little girl had imaginary friends that sound a lot like Maya's imaginary friend.

    The Possibility of Everything sounds interesting; did the author came to any sort of resolution after this trip to Central America? Or do I have to read the book to find out? 😉

  7. Dreamybee – The book description I quoted from the author's blog was part of a post she wrote in response to that Oprah episode, because it did sound somewhat similar to what their daughter was going through.

    Edelman is still not quite sure exactly happened, although a second trip to Belize last year has helped her sort through things. But yes, you should read the book to find out :-).