Lauren Grodstein’s latest novel, Our Short History, takes the form of a memoir written by a dying mother to her son. Things become complicated when her son’s father, who was not aware that he had a son, comes back into their lives. In other hands, the material could have been maudlin, but Grodstein has a mordant wit and a remarkable ability to write smart page-turners. Her characters are flawed, infuriating, lovable, and real. Like her earlier novel, the New York Times bestseller A Friend of the Family, this one is hard to put down and packs an emotional punch that never feels manipulative.
As Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You, puts it: “In Our Short History, Lauren Grodstein breaks your heart, then miraculously pieces it back together so it’s bigger—and stronger—than before. This novel will leave you appreciating both the messiness of life and the immense depths of love.”
Grodstein is the author of four novels, including A Friend of the Family and the Washington Post Book of the Year The Explanation for Everything. Her work has been translated into French, Turkish, German, Hebrew, and other languages, and her essays and reviews have been widely published. She directs the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden and lives in New Jersey with her husband, son, and dog.
Dead Darlings: Our Short History is written by Karen to her son, Jake. He’s six when she writes it, but he’s supposed to be eighteen when he reads it, by which time she will be dead. It’s a high-concept form! Did you know all along that this was how you would tell this story, or was it something that evolved? One of the things I love about the novel is that the book gets away from Karen. She imagines it as one thing, but the plot events of Jake’s father’s reentry into their life, and of her advancing illness, take over. She periodically doubts the project. As you wrote, did you ever doubt that this form could hold the story you wanted to tell? Were there any particular challenges to it? Or did it help you stay focused? Or all of those things?
Well, the thing about cancer is that it’s a situation—a bad situation—but it’s not really a plot. If the novel had simply been about Karen’s cancer, there wouldn’t have been much forward propulsion to the thing. So the novel needed a plot, which is why Jake’s dad entered the scene. Karen’s resistance to his entry, her desire to control her son’s future—that’s where the plot came in, because those circumstances forced the characters to make choices (and plot really does flow from character choices). With cancer, your choices are simply too circumscribed to create much plot.
As for the form, I knew from the beginning that the book would be addressed to “only one reader,” and that reader would be Jake. Karen isn’t a writer, and there’s no reason she would have left a document to anybody but her child. She’s writing the book for a very specific purpose, and that purpose was to explain herself, warts and all, to her kid as he grew older. I found the form incredibly liberating. Usually when I write I’m writing to anyone, or no one; I’m writing into the strange vacuum of my Word file. But here, I was writing to an imaginary 18 year old who lost his loquacious, loving, sometimes obnoxious mom when he was a child. I had Jake in mind the entire time I was writing this, and I thought I understood my audience of one. And I really enjoyed it.
DD: The reader can see much sooner than Karen can that she needs to let Jake’s father, Dave, into his life. Her sister Allie becomes a proxy for the reader in this way. How did you manage the tension?
I like characters who stubbornly hold on to bad ideas, since I’ve periodically done that myself throughout my life (although I like to think that I eventually see the light: yes, we should get a dog! No, we shouldn’t quit our jobs and move to Hawaii!). The idea that Karen could keep sidelining Dave is a pretty bad one, but I understood where she was coming from: she’s done all this by herself, raised her smart beautiful boy, and now Dave just gets to put his grubby hands on the precious child he didn’t even meet until he turned six? As Karen herself puts it: unacceptable.
But then she realizes how much Jake needs his dad, and she begins to soften.
Here, I took a lot of cues from some of the divorces I’ve seen: parents who put their own well-being in front of their kids’, even if they do it from what they consider good intentions. In the end, Karen, of course, relents, because—to quote a divorce lawyer—you can either love your kid or hate your ex, but it’s almost impossible to do both.
DD: Politics and elections play a big part in this book, which must have been written well before Trump emerged even as a potential nominee. As I read it, though, it was impossible not to connect it to last November. Karen writes of her father, an adjunct history professor, “My dad taught me that political power matters more than even financial power. That people with political power make history for every other person in the world.” She tells Jake it’s important to vote, “even in the years that end in an odd number.” What was it like to watch the presidential race unfold, knowing this book was in production? Has the election changed the way you think about any aspects of this novel? Do you think it will affect your future projects?
I don’t think I will write about politics again for quite some time. I really enjoyed writing about Karen’s political career, but I started the book in 2012, when politics was fraught, but not apocalyptic. I watched 2016’s election like everyone else, putting my hands over my eyes and occasionally peeking out in horror. I am stunned but not shocked at what’s happened to our country. It breaks my heart.
If I had many lives to live I would do many different things with those lives: I’d probably go to medical school, work in campaign politics, study science, be a chef. But I only have one life, and who knows if I’d even be any good at those other things? So I just write about doctors and scientists and political consultants and good cooks instead. It’s a nice way of getting to do a whole lot of exciting things, at least in my imagination.
DD: At first, Our Short History seems to be the short history of Karen and Jake’s time together. But Karen writes expansively about family history, too. Jake is named after his great grandfather Janos, a Hungarian Jew who survived the war by hiding in the forest and foraging for food after his parents were killed by the Nazis. Karen tells the story of how her grandparents met after the war and immigrated to America. By the time Karen knows them, they are diminished and rarely change out of their bathrobes. Karen also recommends Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, to future Jake. The Holocaust is a family trauma in the background of the current family trauma of Karen’s terminal illness. Can you talk about your decision to make a Holocaust story part of Karen and Jake’s story? And your process for that? Obviously it’s another weighty topic, but the role it plays in the novel is well balanced.
The story of Karen’s grandparents originally played a much larger part in the novel, but my very wise editor said, oh no, that’s really just too much. Of course she was right.
But with Karen’s grandparents’ story, I was trying to get at this point about history and chance and luck, although I think Karen herself makes that point herself: what is this life, anyway? Why should it have been any better than it was? The circumstances of her family history and her own history with Jake are woven through with joy and extraordinary luck as well as pain and loss. It’s the usual human allotment, really.
Also, I gave Karen’s grandparents that history because it’s a history that I knew from friends growing up; many of the Jewish kids in my life had grandparents who were survivors, and they all had these miraculous stories of survival. I wanted to give Karen a miracle in her background too.
DD: Did any other writers or novels serve as touchstones as you wrote this one? Are there novels you just keep going back to, and why?
Actually, the book that really helped me write this was nonfiction: the wonderful Memoir of A Debulked Woman, written by the feminist academic Susan Gubar. The book is smart and engaging, but it’s also unsparing in the horrifying details of the cancer: the emergency trips to the bathroom, the loss of privacy and dignity, the insanely complicated debulking surgery, wherein surgeons remove huge amounts of tissue from your lower abdomen in an attempt to physically remove the cancer. That book answered all sorts of questions I wouldn’t have dared ask a patient about what ovarian cancer is really like.
As for the novels that I just love, lately I’ve been reading lots of my old favorites with my son: The Westing Game, From the Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (he’d rather read Percy Jackson, but he pretends otherwise). I think there’s something about this turbulent political time, and about having written this book, that makes me want to be with my kid even more than usual, and share what I love with him. And because he’s a good kid, he indulges me. And this is one of the few ways in which my son and I are very much like Karen and Jake.