“As the summer began, I moved to Milwaukee, a rusted city where I had nobody, parents two oceans away, I lay on the sun-warmed floor of my paid-for apartment and decided I would be a slut.”
So begins the wonderfully immersive and concentrated All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews, a novel so good I was torn by the incompatible desires to never set it down and never finish it.
Sneha, 22-years-old and fresh out of college, lands a well paying corporate job that buries her in Gantt charts and spreadsheets. The fact of having a job sets her apart from her college friends, ground down by the recession. She brings one of those college buds along, Thom, her white boy bro. Together, they work as consultants for Peter, a boss who dictates what Sneha should wear, how she should be, dangling before her the carrot of possibly, maybe, one day sponsoring her green card.
Eager to make good on her slut goals, Sneha spends cold Milwaukee nights meeting girls at bars or scrolling through the apps and firing off missives ranging from lazy (“sup”) to cringe (“my doctor told me I need some Vitamin U”) to earnest (“hey! always great to see another queer brown lady here. how are you?”). She lives alone in an apartment paid for by Peter, a bizarre perk of her job as a “change management consultant,” a job title that often elicits clarifying questions as to what the fuck that even means .
Sneha is very good at her job. In every other part of her life, she is very bad at managing change.
She has intimacy issues that touch every part of her life, every fluttering attempt to connect with others stymied by her clamshell-closed heart. She was abused by a close family relative in her childhood. Her parents immigrated with her to India in her youth, but scandal swarmed, leading to her father’s deportation. Both her parents returned to India, leaving Sneha alone in a country still very new to her and with no real way to process this abandonment.
It’d be easy to say Sneha belongs to two worlds at once, her lives twinned but separate. But I find it even blurrier than that. She isn’t of two worlds but of the space between worlds. Early in the book, she reads an article on her phone about how “in certain cultures, there are no separate words for the color green and the color blue, and if you showed someone a grass-hued paint swatch next to one the color of summer sky, they would say these were the same. Different shades of one thing.” This resurfaces from time to time in the book. Greenblue, bluegreen, not hyphenates but one conjoined, complete, sundry thing.
Sneha longs for India just as she feels out of place while there. In Milwaukee, she hurls herself at building an adult life, feeling like three toddlers in a suit. She clings to familial expectations even as they’re at odds with who she is at her core. She hates her name, a discomfort I’m so familiar with that it’s difficult for me even to write her name so often on the page since I know it’s what she wouldn’t want. This is the experience of reading All This Could Be Different; the characters’ hopes, dreams, and desires are so fully rendered on the page that it’s difficult not to absorb them.
The novel is told in first person from Sneha’s perspective and broken into four sections titled I, They, She, We. Despite the first person point of view, the book is communal — collectivist even — in its approach to storytelling. Sneha accumulates a community of friends, her relationship with Thom deepening but also growing more complicated in that way college friendships often do when removed from the bubble of a campus. She reconnects with her ex-boyfriend and dear friend, Amit, with whom she shares a relationship that really does transcend boundaries between family, friendship, romance. She meets Antigone “Tig” Clay, and the two become loving best friends who also challenge each other often. And with Marina, a white girl dancer who Sneha immediately places on a pedestal, she has at first a long circuitous dyke opera of a maddening crush and repeated chance run-ins where nothing really happens . Eventually, they have an on-and-off romance that’s as enthralling when it’s going well as it is when it’s extremely not.
A masterclass in character development, All This Could Be Different provides a textured view of friendship. It looks at not just how we show up for and tend to the people we care about but also how we fail them. These characters fuck up constantly, make patterns of bad behavior. Sneha repeatedly withholds emotional truth from her friends, refuses to open that clamshell, sees herself and her feelings as a burden. And that fear of burdening indeed incidentally, well, burdens, makes her friends have to guess at what’s going on, puts up impenetrable walls. This tendency toward silence and secrets peaks when she accidentally falls into a lie that her parents are dead. But even this choice — to essentially kill her parents — is written with such nuance and care so that it seems not at all like a plot device but a deeply human impulse. In text messages to Amit, Sneha writes about why it felt easier to pretend her parents were dead than to acknowledge their role in her life:
wp get their to own their lives. they get to feel like their lives belong only to them.
for about a month i got to feel that way. not like all my choices are mortgaged to the people who have made my life possible
After this exchange, blue and green reemerge, Sneha using vague memories of her Intro to Physics course to try to break apart the particles and waves of her life. “Sometimes green and blue collapse. Indistinct. Smudge into sameness.”
Consistently threaded into the narrative fabric of the novel are the sociopolitical contexts of the time and the cultural underpinnings of its characters. Class plays an enormous role in the book. When Sneha chooses to “kill” her parents mentally, it is a fantasized rebirth as something she is not and cannot be. It is not so much that she is wishing her parents were actually dead, of course, but rather that things…could be different (*Beanie Feldstein in Lady Bird voice* IT’S THE TITULAR ROLE), that her life could not be so compressed by the fact of her father’s imprisonment and deportation nor by the expectations from her parents that she should marry a man and live the life they envision for her.
The characters in All This Could Be Different self-sabotage and self-harm, but these chaaotic choices are often symptoms of the state-sanctioned violences that grip their lives: racism, unaffordable healthcare, xenophobia, homophobia, strictly enforced gender binaries, patriarchy, and more. They’re bound by the precarity of life. In the storms of their circumstances, they must reach for each other for some semblance of purchase. Some are affected by addiction or proximity to it (the writing about addiction throughout the novel is honest and empathetic). They all bring their baggage to the table, and when the characters fight in this book, it’s as meaningful and deep-seated as when they connect. Their problems are sometimes at odds with each other; they struggle to see things through each others’ eyes. But they try. And when they fail, they keep trying.
To Thom, Sneha’s paid-for apartment might seem like a great privilege, but it comes at a great cost, too: Her property manager who lives in the same building is a nosy, uptight racist who uses every dogwhistle in the book to signal her disdain for Sneha. When Thom pontificates on his Marxist kill-the-ruling-class ideology, Sneha goads him into admitting his parents are doctors. When Marina laughs at the Indian woman who approaches Sneha to inquire about marriage arrangement, an ache blooms in Sneha as she realizes she can’t explain to this white girl how, yes, she’s happy to be in this country where she can freely hold her hand but also, no, she does not wish to laugh at or mock her people.
For every character, things will be good for a bit, and then one bad thing leads, quickly, to another, problems compounding each other until they become ruinous. An infected tooth. A lost job. A family member in need of help. These things can upend a life. Sneha goes from having enough money to live comfortably while sending some overseas to her parents and picking up the tab for her less financially stable friends to watching her bank account dwindle dangerously close to zero, running calculations on how many days she can live on Wendy’s chicken sandwiches and secretly shopping at a food bank. This trajectory seems to happen quickly and slowly all at once. The temporality of capitalism, indeed, dizzies.
I think I’ve suggested this throughout, but it’s worth stating baldly: All This Could Be Different is queer as fuck. And not only in its dating storylines or queer sex scenes but also in its rendering of friendship as every bit as propulsive, impactful, radiant, and heartbreaking as romantic relationships. As every bit as messy as family, too. It is perhaps the greatest depiction of what chosen family really means without ever explicitly using those words. When Sneha says “I love you” for the first time, it is not to a lover but to a friend.
But also, let’s talk about those queer sex scenes. All This Could Be Different is smart, layered, and often very serious, but it is also very horny (and none of those things contradict each other but rather work together). It is so boring to believe art cannot be both erotic and political. All This Could Be Different deftly functions on both levels, in tandem. There’s a sex scene involving a car’s gear stick that I don’t even want to describe too much so as not to spoil its wonders, so strange and hot and real. The kind of queer sex I crave from literature, exploratory and revelatory.
Those intimacy issues Sneha has? Of course they work their way into the bedroom, where her tendency toward silence persists. One time when Sneha and Marina are fucking, Sneha internally remarks on feeling like she knows all the right things to do with Marina, her body moving as if by instinct. But at the same time, another thought that undercuts this: She thinks about wanting sex that is rougher, that is kinkier than what they’re currently doing. We’re let into the rough contours of Sneha’s desire, but she doesn’t let herself or Marina fully into it. Immediately following these fantasized thoughts, Sneha narrates:
But that was too much. I knew that. And I was holding her like a lover, holding her in my arms carefully while my hands worked her. It would be too much.
Instead of asking for the things she wants, instead of consensually exploring desires she deems too much , unattainable, Sneha stays silent, performs. She judges herself, slick with shame. Later, when the gear stick moment comes into play, we finally get to see Sneha let her desires out a bit more, and that makes the sex scene all the hotter.
Mathew’s prose is remarkable throughout, short, bright bursts of fragments between languid, snaking sentences that surprise. Never before have I read a sentence about masturbation more lovely than this: “I began to knead and whisk myself, summoning the froth of lust.” It’s immediately followed by the to-the-point: “When I came I cried out loud.” This skillful alternating between lush imagery and straightforward, plain language makes All This Could Be Different pulsate. I was immediately captivated by its rhythms.
Even the mundane is rendered rousing, such as this description of Sneha simply tracking the furniture she ordered online: “I checked the tracking numbers of the furniture items I’d bought. The pieces—dressers and tufted sleeper sofas and leaner mirrors—were lodged in the belly of the country, moving slowly, implacably, toward me.”
I’m a sucker for food writing in fiction, and there are great food and drink descriptions throughout: “We ordered bulbous glasses of jammy-then-butter red wine, fried tomatoes, a salad topped with perfect little dominoes of beefsteak, a risotto full of corn and leeks—new to me, green and oniony.”
The movement of memory in the book also has a distinct and memorable rhythm, such as this bang of a flashback when Sneha accidentally cuts her finger opening a can of chickpeas (RELATABLE):
The sting of it against my little gash, a time machine. Arnica on my cuts, my mother holding me aloft by a single thin brown arm while I wailed. Light coming in through dusty curtains over the bed that my grandparents would, years later, lie in and never leave. Dettol in the small hospital in Kerala. I had gone to have my wisdom teeth taken out mid-university; it made no sense, my mother said, to pay American highway robber prices. I thought of how in childhood I would fold into my mother after tantrums and punishments, how she would envelop me. Stiff bright fabric, soft ropy arms.
What a packed paragraph, every detail meaningful. Complicated memories blooming like little bruises. And it’s immediately followed by a tight, one-sentence paragraph that does just as much:
My mother’s smell. Fennel seeds. Sandal soap.
Whether she’s writing about Gantt charts or economic turmoil or oysters or blue and green or sex or hunger, Mathews’ sentences seduce and swathe. Here is a sprawling novel that’s still intimate at every turn, compacting so much into its shape, like a fistful of sand. And it is a testament to the strength of the character writing that I genuinely feel like I could read about them for much longer, that I didn’t want the story to ever end. But so much of this book is also about eschewing endings, about imagining the future and also recognizing the way other people ripple-effect our lives. So even its ending doesn’t feel like a conclusion so much as an embrace and a gentle nudge forward.
These characters help and hurt each other in turns. Their interpersonal conflicts are inseparable from the more overarching systemic ones that impact them in varied ways. But most of all, these friendships and relationships just feel blisteringly real in their highs and lows. During a rift with Thom, Sneha laments there aren’t movies she can sink herself into that contend with friendship breakups; romantic breakups take up more space in heartbreak narratives. I think now if a friend were to come to me experiencing difficulty with another friend, I might press this novel into their hands.
Yes, here are some messy as fuck people, but they’re also trying their best in an inhospitable, cruel world. The novel is quietly anti-carceral, believing in second, third, fiftieth chances. Its title also becomes a rallying cry, the core of Tig’s beliefs that they can and should try to build a better life, one in which burdens can be shared and not dealt with in painful isolation. When the characters begin to hope, begin to work toward something new, something different, it feels like a transcendent act of bravery. And none of it is sugar-coated or idealized. This is hard work, building community and coalitions. People will fuck up, and they do, over and over in All This Could Be Different. But the novel dares to suggest that even within our interpersonal conflicts with each other, there are chances for connection and for growth. We just have to allow ourselves to take them.