In today’s featured fiction, we present our readers with an excerpt from Carolina Setterwall’s debut novel, Let’s Hope for the Best, out today from Little, Brown.
Publishers Weekly called the book—in which Setterwall recounts the intensity of falling in love with her partner and the shock of finding him dead one morning—”austere, quietly disturbing…a starkly unsentimental depiction of the difficulties of life after the death of a partner,” while Kirkus hailed it as “A moving and tender work of autofiction that depicts the obsessive interiority of grief.”
I’m nursing on the sofa when your email arrives. Nowadays this is all I do. I nurse, then sit as still as I possibly can while holding a sleeping baby, terrified to wake him, terrified he might start screaming again. Then I nurse again, sit very still again, attempt to put the now sleeping baby down so I can take a shower or eat, I fail, I go back to the sofa, I nurse. Day in, day out. Ivan is three months old on the day your email arrives. You’re back at work. I have no idea which freelance job you’re at since you rarely tell me about them. An advertising production company or some freelance commercial director has probably hired you for your technical skills. You say your job is so boring that I wouldn’t even want to hear how you spend your days. I used to insist you tell me anyway, but not anymore. I let you decide if you want to tell me about your job, or not.
As for me, I breastfeed. On your way home every day, you text me and ask what you should pick up for dinner. You take care of most things around the house now. You work, buy groceries, cook, clean, and play with our cat, who’s been neglected since Ivan arrived. You’ve stopped exercising for the time being. I nurse and nurse. And then, on a Thursday in early May, just after one o’clock in the afternoon, I receive an email from you.
May 8, 2014, 13:05
Subject: If I die
Good to know if I croak.
My computer password is: ivan2014
There’s a detailed list in Documents/If I die.rtf
Let’s hope for the best!
I read the email three times in a row. At first I can’t make sense of it, then I read it again and start to feel worried. After the third reading, my worry morphs into annoyance. This is so like you. No one is as blunt, as unsentimental, as compulsively realistic as you are. You, with your bone-dry emails and text messages. You, with your never-ending backups of your computer and phone. You, with your constantly changing passwords, combinations of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. You, who don’t want to be buried when you die, just scattered to the wind somewhere no one would feel obliged to visit with flowers and candles. No one but you would send an email like this, in the middle of the day, from work, to his girlfriend at home nursing on the sofa. But you did.
I don’t respond. Instead, I ask you about it that evening at the dinner table. “What’s the deal with this?” I say, and you tell me, just as I knew you would, “It was a whim, and besides, a person can never be too careful.” It’s stuff I should know just in case something happens. We leave it at that. We never mention the email again.
It’s a Sunday in October. We’re both tired and not particularly kind to each other. I’ve hardly slept; Ivan was at my breast for the whole of yet another night. I still haven’t mastered the trick of falling asleep between feedings, and now that Ivan is eight months old the future doesn’t look particularly bright on that front. So I’m always tired. Today I’m also annoyed and feeling sorry for myself. You’re stressed out and trying to finish some project. You still haven’t told your clients that next week you’re going on parental leave half-time. We argue about that a lot. I want you to lighten your workload so you’ll have the time—and energy—for our life, our child, our world. You don’t want to. Or you say that you want to but you can’t. Freelancing doesn’t work like that, you tell me. You’ve worked hard to build your clientele, and if you disappear for six months, they’ll find someone new. Replace you. You’re tired too. When you relax, your face looks sad. You don’t have the energy to even think about your imminent paternity leave, mornings with Ivan followed by a full day of work. I’m stressed too. Grumpy. Anxious. This isn’t what I imagined family life would be like. You tell me I knew what I was getting into when I chose to have a child with you. I tell you I was hoping things would be different. We don’t want to make each other sad, but lately that seems almost impossible. Still, we keep trying.
Three weeks ago we moved, a move we had no time for, but which we pushed through anyway. We packed at night during the brief periods when Ivan was sleeping by himself. We packed in silence, avoiding any conversations that might cause pain or end in an argument. We moved the same way. We’ve almost unpacked everything now. Today we have to take a break because our car has started acting up. We’re going to drive out to your parents’ house and have your dad take a look at it. We load Ivan into the car seat in the back, you climb in next to him, and I drive. I can’t help pointing out for the hundredth time in a cheery tone of voice that’s fooling nobody how handy it would be if you had a driver’s license too. You clench your jaw and tell me you’ll get to it soon. I don’t ask when because I don’t have the energy to argue today. I already feel guilty just mentioning it. We both fall silent. Ivan is in a good mood, and you keep him that way by distracting him with funny sounds and toys. I find it hard to drive when Ivan cries, and no one makes him laugh like you do. Listening to the two of you playing in the back as we get closer and closer to your parents’ house, I think: I love my little family. Things are just a bit tough for us right now.
At your parents’ place, you work on the car with your dad while I drink tea with your mom. She interrogates me, discreetly and respectfully, about how things are going for us. I answer, less discreetly but still respectfully, that life’s a lot to handle right now. We don’t get much sleep, and you’re stressed out. The move was rough, and Ivan’s having nightmares. He wants to breastfeed all night. “We don’t even have time to think about how we feel right now,” I say, which is a lie.
Your older brother pulls into the driveway. His visit is unexpected, and through the kitchen window I see how surprised you both are to see each other. You laugh as you hug each other. He thumps you on your back. You are engulfed by his arms. He’s always been much bigger than you. Shorter, but wider and stronger. You light up, laughing at something he says, as the two of you head into the house. Your step is quick on the stairs. You’re in a hurry to get to the kitchen and show off Ivan. Your big brother has met Ivan only once before. Not for lack of interest, but everyone’s just been so busy lately. Your brother coos over Ivan, says he’s gotten so big, that he looks just like you. He calls you “little bro.” He slurps down his coffee in large gulps. You drink a glass of Coke. Then you both go back out to the car, and I follow with Ivan strapped to my waist in his carrier. I take out my phone and snap a picture of all three of you standing by the car, trying to figure out what’s wrong with the wipers, not yet able to fix them. In the picture, your backs are toward the camera; one of you is scratching his head. You are two brothers and a father who will never again meet in this life, but nobody knows that yet.
Excerpted from Let’s Hope for the Best by Carolina Setterwall. Copyright © 2019. Available from Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.