Love and Friendship Under Late-Stage Capitalism: On Sarah Thankam Mathews’s “All This Could Be Different”

By Rafael FrumkinAugust 18, 2022

Love and Friendship Under Late-Stage Capitalism: On Sarah Thankam Mathews’s “All This Could Be Different”

All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews

“SCENES WHICH MAKE vital changes in our neighbors’ lot are but the background of our own,” George Eliot writes in Middlemarch, yet “they become associated for us with the epochs of our own history, and make a part of that unity which lies in the selection of our keenest consciousness.” Of the contemporary fiction on offer, there are few better illustrations of this sentiment than Sarah Thankam Mathews’s All This Could Be Different, in which the lives of a group of millennials become fascinatingly entangled in the bitter cold of late-aughts Milwaukee. Mathews offers us a panoramic view of mingled desires, fears, and joys that will be familiar to readers of Eliot and Austen, but she does them one better: her novel is about an underrepresented first-generation immigrant, and it’s incredibly gay.

Sneha is “one of the lucky ones,” a twentysomething who, despite graduating into the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse, still manages to secure a consulting job for a Fortune 500 client. She brings with her a white college friend, Thom, whose Marxist grandstanding is undercut by the fact that both his parents are doctors. The two of them move to Milwaukee, where Sneha proceeds to have an unmistakably millennial experience: she lives above a toxic landlord, goes to overpriced gastropubs with Thom and his girlfriend, and tries to meet women online. We wonder how Sneha, a young queer woman thrown into the gray abyss of a Midwestern city, trying her best to tap into the tight-knit (and therefore scarcely accessible) dyke scene, will fare. Over the course of the novel — which manages the rare feat of being both lyrical and page-turning — we find out.

Sneha’s father has been deported to India for crimes he didn’t commit, and Sneha’s mother has followed him, leaving her alone in the United States. Sneha shoulders the responsibilities of the first-generation child, holding a grueling job she doesn’t believe in, sending money home to her parents whenever she can, and forcing herself to conform to the niceties of the American middle class, which is very white and inhospitable to newcomers. In thinking of her father, Sneha provides a summary of the immigrant experience: “You are here on sufferance. You are a form of currency, not a person, and only a person has the right to desire, which is to say, to be difficult.” Being difficult is something like being queer: you are defined by your desires, and your desires are “abnormal.” We see Sneha most clearly when she’s out of the corporate world and acting on her queerness — she’s finding ways to be human despite the many dehumanizing expectations of her. It’s this focus on Sneha’s desires that makes the novel particularly luminous. Simple actions — sleeping with whomever you want to sleep with, making meaningful connections with your friends — become radical, a message that will be especially resounding in a contemporary America where LGBTQIA2S+ rights are under attack.

In addition to Thom, Sneha meets Tig (delightfully short for “Antigone”), a Black woman with leftist politics who clicks more as a friend than a lover. Sneha keeps in close touch with her friend (and ex-boyfriend) Amit, who is making a killing in the San Francisco tech scene and supporting another friend who’s addicted to heroin. Of this cast of characters, the only nonplatonic one is Marina, the white woman with whom Sneha enters into a rocky relationship. A dancer who’s a handful of years older than Sneha — the kind of age difference that only matters in your twenties — Marina is American in a way Sneha can never be, and it’s Marina’s Americanness that poses one of the greatest threats to their relationship. Throughout their courtship — full of chance encounters and confusing conversations, drawn with a Victorian novelist’s precision — Sneha is hungry but emotionally distant, simultaneously drawn to Marina and put off by her attempts to define the relationship.

The novel is at its best when we’re given a clear glimpse of the emotional shibboleth separating Sneha from Marina: the former needs to be reassured of her importance in love and the world, while the latter has adapted to a life devoid of any such reassurance. At one point Sneha laughs in the face of a psychiatrist who tries to diagnose her with depression and anxiety. Maybe young Americans find relief in these labels, she says, but I don’t — the implication here being that there is nothing broken that needs fixing. Mathews’s brilliance lies in her ability to capture the terra infirma of Sneha’s emotional landscape, resistant to the superficial diagnostic categories of American pop psych. Barred from being difficult, Sneha has become a mystery to herself.

As much as All This Could Be Different is about queer romance, it’s also about the necessity of friendship under late-stage capitalism. Bouncy, high-energy Tig pulls Sneha out of some dire situations, and Thom’s personal growth in many ways mirrors Sneha’s own. Amit, devoted to the well-being of a suffering addict, comes across less as a rich tech bro than a fierce proponent of mutual aid. We get the impression that these are very good people, and they are even better together. Mathews is careful not to make examples of her characters, however; there is no how to act in this book, just a lot of clumsy, well-intentioned acting. In a truly genius move, the novel doesn’t value Sneha’s friends over Marina or vice versa: all of them are swept up in the chaotic epochs of their own histories, trying to survive and loving each other throughout. This love is in large part what makes the novel so inviting.

Mathews is a gifted prose stylist. Streetlights turn the night “the dark orange of a bee’s thorax,” and rage breaks “quick and nasty as a dropped egg.” There are chuckle-worthy moments, such as when Sneha drolly reflects that a broken clock’s frozen hands “seemed like a metaphor for how people were.” The prose, coupled with the characters’ love, makes for a novel that is incredibly warm, considering its difficult subject matter. American xenophobia, figuring out one’s life post–economic collapse, volatility, and heartbreak: all this is cast in the inviting glow of Mathews’s smart and elegant sentences. This is one reason among many that the novel is so hard to put down.

Few debuts are as precisely drawn as this one, but then All This Could Be Different is an exceptional novel. With characters compassionately rendered and a story that speaks to the experience of a first-generation queer millennial, All This Could Be Different is the kind of book many readers will need as much as they want, and we’re lucky to have it.


Rafael Frumkin is the author of three books: The Comedown (2018), Confidence (forthcoming in 2023), and Bugsy (forthcoming in 2024). He lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where he is an assistant professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University.

LARB Contributor

Rafael Frumkin’s fiction, nonfiction, journalism, and criticism have appeared in Granta, Guernica, The Washington Post, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of three books: The Comedown (2018), Confidence (forthcoming in 2023), and Bugsy (forthcoming in 2024). He lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where he is an assistant professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University.


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