Perhaps it’s too soon to say which books we’ll look back on in 50 years as the ones that defined a generation, but Sarah Thankam Mathews’ debut, a close-to-perfect coming-of-age romp, is surely a contender. Bitingly funny and sweetly earnest, it’s one of those rare novels that feels just like life, its characters so specific in their desires and experiences that you’re sure you’ve met them—or maybe you’re about to. Yet Mathews also captures some unnamable, essential thing about being a 20-something struggling through work and love and late-stage capitalism in the United States in the mid-2000s. In the manner of books that stay with you forever, All This Could Be Different is a singular story that extends beyond itself.
At 22, Sneha graduates from college into a tanked economy. She immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, but her parents have since returned to India, leaving Sneha alone. She lands an entry-level job at a consulting firm in Milwaukee and starts fresh in a new city, where she encounters financial successes and catastrophes, makes friends and falls into a heady romance. She relates these experiences in an unforgettable narrative voice: dryly funny, self-analytical, a little sarcastic and full of heart.
Though Sneha is preoccupied with her girlfriend for much of the book, this is actually a story about friendship. Sneha’s new friend Tig, a slightly older Black genderfluid lesbian, tells her that friendship takes a lot of work, and over the course of the novel, we get to see Sneha and Tig do that work. It’s breathtaking to witness this slow and painful process. Over dinners and phone calls and meltdowns, long drives and impromptu parties, Sneha, whose past traumas have made her unwilling to trust others, who longs for love even as she shies away from it, learns what true intimacy requires: to see and be seen.
Lives are made up of so many ordinary moments, so many conflicting emotions, so many messes—some world-shattering, some mundane. It’s all here in this funny, vibrant, heartbreaking book: the ache of new love and the pleasures of good food, what it’s like having money and what it’s like losing it, microaggressions and casual racism and radical politics. There are drunken mistakes, childhood wounds, good sex, bad sex, the American dream, queer love, an explotitive economy and the bite of Midwestern winters. And of course, the pressures and expectations of being a first-generation Asian American immigrant.
Through it all, there’s the steady pulse of friendship and the quiet work of building a family—all the beautiful details that unfold along one woman’s journey to wholeness and home.