by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@teachingtheapocalypse)
How would our lives be different if we knew what others would say when we are gone? Steven Rowley's The Celebrants (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) explores what happens when college friends, after experiencing the sudden death of one of their core members, make a binding pact to have their own "funerals" while they are still alive.
I was deeply moved by this book, which brings together the five friends at several different points in their lives as different members invoke the pact they made during college. Their sixth friend, Alec, who died while they were in college, is always also present in their gatherings, albeit through his absence.
If any of the five friends reach out to the others to enact the pact, they must all gather to fulfill their agreement. The goal? To share their thoughts and feelings and to remind them that they are not alone. "Leave nothing left unsaid had been Marielle's motto when the idea was first hatched. If nothing else, it would be clear that they were loved" (13).
Although Marielle, Naomi, Craig, and the Jordans (Jordan and Jordy, who are married) all leave college after Alec's death and go on to live very different lives, they are bound together by their pact, which becomes important as their individual lives hit points of desperation when their friendships suddenly become critical.
"Humans led with their hearts and it took all five of their sense (six, if you count common) to catch up. Brains would always try to keep pace, but brains were easily tricked, filtering everything as they do through the heart's chosen lens" (203).
Many years pass after they leave Berkeley, and no one invokes the pact, but when Marielle finds herself in the middle of a crisis, she calls upon her friends. It is not an easy gathering. Their friendships are complicated and they don't necessarily know how to have a "funeral" for a living friend. They are each complex people, and they've grown and changed in the years since they were together in college. But they knew each other at an early and fundamental time, and they find their way back to each other time and again as their lives change and hard circumstances come their way.
"We weren’t meant to see everything, we weren’t built to do everything, we aren’t capable of knowing everything. At a certain point, peace has to be found with the choices we’ve made" (62).
This is very much a book about mortality and about friendship and about lifting each other up during hard times. It's also a book about the messiness of life, about the ways that we are all individuals who can never truly know all things about each other, and about how hard it is to ask for help.
And finally, it's a book about how asking for help and connecting with others is always worth it. I've seen mixed reviews of this one, and it is very different from some of Rowley's other books, but for me, it absolutely worked.
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