I am from a small town by the ocean, and love to read about other small seaside towns (and all the accompanying secrets and drama they contain) so it was such a treat to be able to read Jennifer Dupee’s debut novel, THE LITTLE FRENCH BRIDAL SHOP, being published by St. Martin’s Press on March 9, 2021.
In the novel, Larisa Pearl returns to her insular seaside hometown in Massachusetts to manage Elmhurst, the historic home left to her by her great aunt, who recently passed away. She wanders into the town’s local bridal shop on a whim and inexplicably buys a dress—even though she’s not engaged, and she’s not even sure she wants a future with her boyfriend. Soon word spreads all over town that Larisa is getting married. Rather than dispel the rumor, Larisa, who is struggling to cope with her mother’s worsening dementia, chooses to perpetuate the lies, which escalate into a tangled web that confounds and hurts her parents and friends. It’s only when Larisa is finally able to come to terms with her mother’s fragile future that she’s able to straighten out the chaos of her life.
It’s one of those books where everyone means well, and is doing the best they can with what they’ve been dealt – which was a refreshing read during the unsettled fall and winter of 2020. I spoke with Jennifer about the book and her experience writing it.
Leanna: Can you tell me what prompted you to write this book, and a little bit about your journey from idea to publication?
Jennifer: I grew up on the North Shore of Boston. My grandmother lived for many years in the seaside town of Beverly Farms (next to Manchester-by-the-Sea of movie fame). It’s a setting that is deeply ingrained in my psyche and one I drew on as I created my fictional town and embarked on the opening pages of the book. I had this vision of a regal house up on a hill and I intuited that my main character, Larisa Pearl, had inherited the house. So I had this house in my head and I had my main character, but I didn’t yet know the story.
A year later, I treated myself to a writing weekend at the Emerson Inn in Rockport, MA, to try to uncover the story behind the house. I had just finished breakfast in the dining room and was trying to settle into some meaningful writing, but I kept finding myself distracted by the ridiculous wallpaper that featured a large repeating pattern of tan pheasants on a navy backdrop. Each of the many identical pheasants peered backward over its shoulder, beak slightly open so that it looked almost like it was gagging on something. I couldn’t stop laughing when I looked at them and I couldn’t stop looking, so I began to write the wallpaper into my manuscript.
The story began there with my main character, Larisa, taking a crowbar to the house wallpaper in an effort to discover the source of an apparent leak. She’s recently purchased a wedding dress on a whim though she has no groom. She’s grappling with her mother’s failing health and as the novel progresses, she perpetuates the rumor that she’s getting married. As Larisa rips into the wall with the crowbar, she is in a state of disillusionment and confusion; she’s not thinking clearly. In short, she’s not quite herself. I recognized this state as it was something I deeply felt when I was grappling with my own mother’s illness and then subsequent death from breast cancer. As I began to delve into the writing, the story of Larisa’s deceptions became a vehicle to explore the feelings of loss of identity, disorientation, and confusion that consumes a child (even an adult child) who becomes a caretaker of an ailing parent.
There was something about this book that really meshed for me from the beginning. I found myself thinking about it constantly and frequently coming across new ideas or images to incorporate. As I developed the scenes with the wallpaper, I realized I really needed a photo of it so I called the inn to get one. Turns out, they were replacing the wallpaper in the dining room, but they had some leftover rolls of it, so I was able to get a few large sheaths. Now I have a large, framed scrap of the wallpaper hanging in my office.
Early on in the book, Larisa thinks to herself that she has “become the wrong person.” I feel like this is something we’ve all thought at least once. Do you think that she ever feels like she becomes “the right person” or more that there is no such thing as the right person?
In the moment when Larisa thinks this, she’s a bit ashamed of the person she’s become, of how she’s been acting lately. Later in the book, she realizes that she has diverged from the person she thought she was in part because of the impact of her mother’s illness. She’s always thought of her mother as one of the beacons in her life, as one of the coordinates by which she defines herself. But if her mother ceases to exist, then who is she, Larisa wonders. Eventually, she realizes, that she needs to face her vulnerabilities and to some extent redefine herself. I don’t know that she ever really becomes “the right person” but she learns that she needs to have some agency in the reclaiming of herself.
Larisa detaches herself from reality as a way of coping with her life, and seems to think it’s okay, but she is so disturbed and almost angry, by the way her mother is detached from reality through no fault of her own. Can you talk a little bit about this parallel?
Yes, it’s an interesting resonance in that Kitty, Larisa’s mother, has no control over her loss of memory/reality. In contrast, Larisa has control (to a degree) but chooses to perpetuate a false reality. For Larisa, this creation of a false reality is a way to avoid the awfulness of her mother’s illness. It’s too hard for her to see her mother struggle and so she finds this way to avoid it. With dementia, the person who’s suffering from it (of course) experiences a profound loss of self. But in this book, I wanted to explore the loss of self and disorientation and confusion experienced by the caretaker. There’s a large part of Larisa that just wants things to return to the way they’ve always been. But once she finally faces the fact that her mother’s memory and state of health will actually only get worse, she finds a way to embrace the new reality and even find ways to embrace her mother’s new mode of being.
I loved the scenes where Larisa is remembering her Aunt Ursula, especially the sleepover for the first Royal Wedding, which I can remember watching at the time. Were there scenes that were easier to write than others?
This scene was a really fun scene to write as I drew directly on personal experience for it. My grandmother was a huge fan of the royal family and for the royal wedding, she orchestrated a sleepover with me, my sister, and my cousin so that we could watch the coverage. She dressed us up with old curtains for veils and cardboard crowns (so that we, too, could look like brides). I still have a hilarious photo of it with the three of us looking very serious in our dress-up garb. I am lucky in that I had some very charismatic grandmothers and great aunts in my life and I really fused them all into one to create Aunt Ursula. Even though Aunt Ursula is no longer alive during the action of the book, her character is omnipresent.
I have always been fascinated by old houses, so I also really loved writing about the house in multiple scenes.
Normally in a book like this, we are rooting for the main character to get together with one of the men, but in this book, there isn’t necessarily a “happily ever after.” Did you feel pressure when writing to have an HEA? Without spoiling, did the book always end the way it does?
I never felt the pressure to converge on a “happily ever after ending”. Even though the book has some romance to it, to me the plot really felt like an education plot. Larisa really needed to learn how to be comfortable with herself by the end of the book and she needed to learn how to face her mother’s failing health. In doing so, she opens herself to the future possibility of romance.
The book ending has stayed pretty much intact from the first time I wrote it (with relatively minor edits). Once Larisa purchased the wedding dress, I knew I would have to get her back into the dress by the end of the book. I wasn’t sure how I would do it, but I wrote toward that goal and eventually reached it. I also knew from the beginning that the night blooming cereus, the cryptic plant that features in the book, would play a part in the ending.
Who, if anyone, reads your early work? Do you have a writing group? Do you tend to share a lot along the way, or keep things close to the vest until you have a solid draft?
I have a wonderful writing group, the Salt and Radish Writers, who read my early work. They are Crystal King, Anjali Mitter Duva, and Henriette Lazaridis. Kelly Robertson, a former group member, also contributed heavily to this book. I do tend to keep things close to the vest until I’m ready to share. I feel it’s really important to have my hooks into the book and have at least some idea of where I’m going before I share. Other creative types, however well-meaning (and they are very well-meaning), tend to inject their own sensibilities and viewpoints into a book if it hasn’t set a bit yet and then the writer can lose an organic sense of the story. And so, I’m very careful not to share too early. That said, the group has been fantastic and many of their suggestions have been instrumental in making my work stronger and better.
In the spirit of this blog’s name, what are some of the darlings you had to kill in editing your book? Any favorite scenes or characters that didn’t make the final cut?
I had a hockey scene (with Jack, the main male character in the book) that I held onto for quite some time despite feedback that it wasn’t serving the book. I’ve never been a hockey fan, per se, but I spent so much time researching the scene and trying to make it seem as though I knew a lot about hockey, that I had a hard time cutting it.
Publishing at any time is stressful, but I imagine this has been amplified for you through the COVID pandemic. What are some ways your publishing journey has been affected by this? And what are some of the way you and your publishing team are pivoting with the times?
Well, first off, let me say that I feel incredibly lucky to have my home, my family, my job, and my health. COVID has been very challenging, but I know that many others have been impacted much more greatly. I was really looking forward to hosting in-person book events, but now that we’ve pivoted to virtual, I’m uplifted by the many ways in which bookstores and readers have risen to the challenge. I’m excited, for instance, that people near and far can join the virtual events, not just those who live nearby.
One bummer was that my publisher wasn’t able to print physical ARC’s due to the pandemic. However, my publicist Megan Beatie, was able to do a short print run of 50 ARC’s so that we could send them out to journalists, bloggers, etc.
What is next in your writing journey?
I have two projects in the works at the moment. One of them is still gestating and so I won’t talk about it yet. The other is a first-person narration told from the perspective of a seven-year-old girl. Her mother is pregnant, and the entire family is eagerly awaiting the birth of this new baby girl. The story is set in motion when a strange man arrives at the end of the driveway and claims that baby could be his.
Is there anything you want to mention that I haven’t asked?
Though the book tackles some difficult subjects, it’s ultimately a very hopeful book. I think readers will come away from it with a sense of renewal and a promise that when times are hard, we can find relief in facing our vulnerabilities and connecting with those we love.
Find out more about Jennifer on jenniferdupee.com with links to buy the book at IndieBound or at your local bookstore. She is also on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram where you can see a night-blooming cereus in full bloom! (and if you don’t know why that’s exciting, you will after you read the book.)