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All This Could Be Different Reader’s Guide

By Sarah Thankam Mathews

All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews


An introduction to All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews

All This Could Be Different begins with Sneha, a twenty-two-year-old Indian woman, moving to Milwaukee after college for a punishing corporate job. She hopes work will help her secure financial stability, a means to support her parents back in India and perhaps eventually a green card. But most of all she wishes for a period when she can live freely as a queer person before taking up the restrictions she knows will come with adult life.
With money in her checking account and newly downloaded dating apps, Sneha begins to build a life for herself. She meets Tig, a charismatic Black townie who works an array of minimum-wage gigs while studying philosophy at a for-profit college. She reconnects with Thom, a dudebro college friend turned coworker. And she, in chance meetings across this lovely rusted city, runs again and again into Marina, a beguiling white dance teacher recently transplanted from Los Angeles. Their connection, burning and magnetic as it may be, is compromised from the beginning, when Sneha tells Marina a wild lie about herself on their very first date.
Prickly, sensitive, and avoidant, Sneha navigates the challenges of being truly close and open with anybody, even in the throes of a dizzying romance. Crisis follows crisis, and she starts to spiral downward. Jobs go off the rails, rents demand to be paid. Landlords and bosses bring their own challenges to these young people’s lives, alongside the pushes and pulls of love and friendship. It’s then that Tig begins to draw up a radical plan, hoping to save them all.

As wry, tender, and multifaceted as its protagonist, All This Could Be Different is at once an emotionally arresting coming-of-age story; a frank and funny novel of working lives, friendship, race, and class; and a moving group portrait of young people forging community out of struggle. Most of all, it’s a redemptive exploration of interdependence, love, and one young woman’s journey to make a home in the world.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. All This Could Be Different is set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sneha thinks, “We all have our truth of a place. There is no universal narrative of any city that is also real. Only marketing” (p. 19). Do you agree with this statement? What is your impression of Milwaukee, and did it evolve over the course of the novel?

2. Examine Sneha’s friendship with Thom. How is their relationship altered by the power dynamics at play in their lives and shared work experience? How do the outside forces that ensnare them (and the rest of us)—from capitalism and immigration status to race and gender—shape their relationship? Do you think certain differences can open chasms of understanding that are too wide to bridge?

3. Discuss Sneha’s relationship to work and how it is informed by her age, the economic recession, gender, and immigration status (“This is what it means, to come here as an immigrant. 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” [p. 206]). Did you recognize yourself in her or any of the other characters in the novel in terms of your own decisions about or attitude toward work?

4. What do you think is the root of the outsized and seemingly unfounded hostility that Sneha’s downstairs neighbor and property manager, Amy, shows toward her? At various points in the novel, Sneha balks at what she considers an American proclivity for narcissism and brazenness, especially when it comes to expressions of gender and sexuality. For example: “In the past I’d blushed hotly when American teenagers on the TV screen spoke openly, petulantly, brattily to their parents about the birth control pill and intimacy and breakups. Shameless and embarrassing” (p. 109). How did you interpret her surges of disgust and frustration? What is Sneha’s relationship to her own sexuality, and how does it evolve over the course of the novel?

5. Discuss the clock motif. What did the broken clock in her apartment symbolize for Sneha? What was your reaction to the dramatic clock scene toward the end of the novel?

6. On p. 33, Sneha tells Tig, ‘I hate my name. I’ve hated it all my life.’ Throughout the novel, she avoids saying her name, and is uncomfortable when others invoke it. When the reason for this is finally revealed on p. 248, what impact did it have on you? How did it affect your understanding of her character?” Reflect on Sneha’s friendship with Tig. What are the roots of their compatibilities and differences? How does Sneha grow as a result of opening herself to Tig and their vision for the Pink House?

7. Sneha developed numerous coping mechanisms and instincts to shoulder her trauma and shame. How does she protect herself throughout the novel, and how and to what extent does she shed her assumptions and defenses and transform? How do her past experiences shape her relationships to desire and intimacy?

8. Sneha lies to Marina instead of delving into the complicated truth of her family history, even though she loves both Marina and her parents deeply in her own ways. Why do you think she gets stuck in this lie? Do you think that relationships can recover and become stronger after a serious breach of trust?

9. Several characters in the novel struggle with addiction. What did the novel have to say about the different ways people cope with addiction, and the effects it has on friends, families, and romantic relationships?

10. All This Could Be Different opens with an epigraph from the poet Franny Choi that ends with: “I want an excuse to change my life” (p. vii). How does Sneha, at different points, embody this? What kind of change do you predict for her after the novel’s final pages?

11. In the first chapter, Sneha says, “This is not a story about work or precarity. I am trying, late in the evening, to say something about love, which for many of us is not separable from the other shit” (p. 4). How have your own experiences of love been shaped by “the other shit”—in other words, the material realities of life? What, in the end, do you think the novel has to say about love?

About this Author

Sarah Thankam Mathews grew up between Oman and India, immigrating to the United States at seventeen. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, her work appeared in Best American Short Stories 2020. She is the founder of the mutual aid organization Bed Stuy Strong. All This Could Be Different is her first novel.
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