Book Review: The Possibility of Everything, by Hope Edelman

(Hope Edelman is the author of the New York Times bestseller Motherless Daughters.)

“What do you believe in?” Uzi asked me one night.
“I’m a card-carrying member of the Church of the Senses,” I said. “I have to see to believe.”
“No, I’m serious,” he said. “What do you believe in? Really believe in?”
To parse out what I truly believe in from what I once used to believe in and what I wish I could believe in — it’s a harder task than one might think. …
“I believe in the possibility of everything,” I told my husband. “But I can’t place my trust in anything without visible proof.”

This conversation, from Hope Edelman’s new memoir The Possibility of Everything, forms the crux of a story that takes it beyond a traditional travelogue — the story of a troubled family’s trip to Belize — and into territory that approaches the important questions and truths of our existence. In The Possibility of Everything, Hope Edeleman looks unflinchingly for answers that most of the literati — often especially true of those engaged in travel writing — like to pretend don’t exist.

It is a flaw in the adult literature of the 20th century that the writings considered intellectually important are the ones that shy away from the big questions facing humanity: what is right? What is wrong? What do we believe in? Many young adult and children’s books have become popular, I believe, because they are willing to address those issues that well-known adult writers are often ashamed to admit thinking about. Perhaps it is to travel writing — especially travel books like Edelman’s — that adults must look for serious contemplation of these issues.

But Edelman’s book is not simply — or even mostly — about faith and the conundrums of existence. It is, at heart, a travel story, covering the journey of a family in turmoil in California to their searches for answers in Belize, and what they discover about themselves on the way.

The Possibility of Everything opens with a scene so well-written I had to shut the book after reading the first paragraph and wait until I had more than five minutes free. This was, I knew immediately, a book I wanted to sink into.

“A ragged dirt road twists through six miles of rain forest in western Belize, … If you make this drive the day after a heavy December rain, as my husband, Uzi, and I do, the road will still be gluey and ripe. Its surface will be the color and consistency of mango pudding. … [Y]ou might look down at the three-year-old lying across your lap and think about how she is a child who loves mangoes and loves pudding but that you have never thought to put the two together for her before. … Or you might look down at her and just think, Please, and leave it at that.”

Edelman then takes us back — far back, it seems, although in reality it’s only a few months. But it is worlds away, to Los Angeles and a hectic, busy life with the pressures of motherhood and a strained marriage, and to the scene where the troubles erupted, the occasion that wound its way through confusion and fear, frustration and heartbreak, to land the family on a mango-pudding road in Belize, searching for a shaman. A violent outburst from a little girl, out of nowhere, inflicted on her mother and blamed on an imaginary friend, is simply a precursor of things to come.

Edelman’s daughter, Maya, is not, the author is convinced, possessed by an evil spirit. It’s just not something she believes in, although her husband is more open to that possibility. For the author, the concept is too weird.

But her mothering instincts are shouting from under societal expectations and her own doubt. Maya has an imaginary friend, Dodo, whose behavior is violent from the outset — or whose influence causes Maya to be so — and worsens over time. Edelman paints a vivid picture of a mother wearied to the bone with uncontrollable tantrums and worried sick about what is happening to her little girl.

This is the point when most of we semi-experienced parenters jump in with scoffing. This problem, we say, is likely psychological, often normal for a child her age, very probably your fault anyway … in any case, it clearly does not call for a family trip to Belize.

Not only has Edelman gone down every single one of those roads already, she agrees, at least about not needing to visit a shaman in a foreign land. Her husband is interested in the shamans practicing ancient healing wisdom in the country, but she is not. She does, however, agree that the family could use a vacation. So, right before Christmas 2000 the four of them — mother, father, Maya, and the imaginary (or not) friend/evil spirit Dodo — board an airplane for Belize.

It is hard to talk about the travel aspects of this book without also incorporating questions of faith, fear, and motherhood. I’ll bring in clich├ęs for a moment: for those who haven’t dived into the darkest areas of their imaginations, the places where their worst fear resides, this book’s self-questioning and emotionality might come across as overblown and overdrawn, detracting from its excellent writing and observation. But Edelman’s inward journey, driven by worry about her child’s health, is part and parcel of what binds this book together. Her best observations are made when contemplating her own situation, and that of her family, and what I like best about them, and Edelman’s writing in general, is the spicy, honest humor she never fails to include, even in the most introspective moments:

“And yet. Sitting here in the deep green chair on the front porch of our cabana, underneath this roof thatched by hand, gazing out on a trellis of hot-pink bougainvillea while the gray horse munches on grass and the bees buzz and the mot-mot birds do their mysterious mot-mot things up in the canopy, a whole ecosystem waking up to a bright new day … well, I can’t believe I’m going to say this. But when Don Elijio tells Rosita that with faith, anything is possible, the idea that other people can have such views without being completely delusional suckers … I can live with that right now.”

Edelman and her family don’t spend a huge amount of time in Belize. A little in the jungle, a short trip to visit magnificent ruins of the Mayan empire in Guatemala, and some time by the sea. But each spot is enriched with the continuing family drama, increased personal desperation, and willingness to learn from the people they meet. In the end it is the place and the people that feed the internal journey, not the other way around. When they do finally allow a shaman to treat their daughter, they have already learned much, enough to give them a little faith in simple healing: a flower bath that, insanely, seems to work. Dodo disappears.

Edelman is changed by her experience, and not just in the way she views her daughter’s health or religious faith. At one point she makes the claim that part of travel’s attraction for her is its ability to reaffirm who she is. All those foreign situations, which for me make me constantly question who I am and where I come from, for her bring a stronger, reassured sense of self. But, as with all the other convictions she packs on this trip, this one, too, is brought into question. She begins to view her daughter’s illness as, partly, her family’s illness, and an illness that couldn’t be cured by the society she lives in.

“The thought takes shape until it forms a perfect sentence: I’m lonely at home. I’m not lonely here. Here I’ve been surrounded by happy people and I’ve been laughing for the first time in months. In six days, we’ll head back to a place where the mind-set insists that imaginary friends are purely a child’s mental invention, … In our brief time here, I’ve entered a culture that doesn’t think of me as a crazy mother for wondering if Dodo could be more than a child’s elaborate idea.”

For those who condemned Eat, Pray, Love as “emotional porn for women,” The Possibilty of Everything is not going to be an attractive read. Even for those who enjoy the story, it has flaws. Sometimes the introspection is too drawn-out, and the long reminiscences and explanations of Edelman’s own history and convictions, while well written and interesting, detract from a story that would be stronger if it were tighter. And her continued references to her deceased mother might be confusing for those who, like me, haven’t read her New York Times bestselling book Motherless Daughters.

However, I still find it a riveting story of sterling quality. It is, in a way, a gift, wrapped in keen observation, a portrait of a family’s journey and the places they’re taken to, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Honest and unflinching introspection define this book. It is for anyone who’s ever traveled looking to heal themselves, or a loved one. It is for those who journey with questions in their heart, those who need a foreign land to help them face their own limitations and fears. It is, especially, for parents, for mothers, whose children often baffle us and sometimes scare us. For those who might be encouraged to know that somewhere in this world there is a culture and community that might show us another road for health, parenting, understanding, and a way to live.

That, after all, is what travel gives us: new paths, no matter what we’re looking for.

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