Squashed among a bus full of strangers, mother-daughter duo Jessica and Emily Burnstein watch their carefully mapped-out college tour devolve into a series of off-roading misadventures, from the USA Today bestselling author of The Bookish Life of Nina Hill.
Jessica and Emily Burnstein have very different ideas of how this college tour should go.
For Emily, it's a preview of freedom, exploring the possibility of her new and more exciting future. Not that she's sure she even wants to go to college, but let's ignore that for now. And maybe the other kids on the tour will like her more than the ones at school. . . . They have to, right?
For Jessica, it's a chance to bond with the daughter she seems to have lost. They used to be so close, but then Goldfish crackers and Play-Doh were no longer enough of a draw. She isn't even sure if Emily likes her anymore. To be honest, Jessica isn't sure she likes herself.
Together with a dozen strangersand two familiar enemiesJessica and Emily travel the East Coast, meeting up with family and old friends along the way. Surprises and secrets threaten their relationship and, in the end, change it forever.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Jessica Burnstein, 45, full of optimism
I left the house this morning, determined to take the day by the horns and throw it over my shoulder like a scarf, if necessary. I'd had two cups of coffee, I'd remembered to floss, and I was going to tell my boss the crap with Valentina simply wasn't going to fly anymore.
Forty minutes later, because this is Los Angeles and it takes forty minutes to go anywhere, at any time, I walked into the office slightly less full of beans and with "TiK ToK" by Kesha stuck in my head. I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about that, but it was the last thing playing when I turned off the car. The party don't start till I walk in . . . If only I had half her confidence.
I could hear John before I could see him, which was par for the course. Classic iron hand in the velvet glove, my boss, and if occasionally the gloves are fingerless and the fingers a little bit stabby, so much the better. Southern to the core, with all the civility and elegance that implies, but with a Yankee carpetbagger's eye for profitable misery. Our law firm doesn't openly chase ambulances, but John does love a tearful plaintiff. He can smell salt water before it steps off the elevator.
I spotted his head over a carpeted cubicle wall. It was angled in such a way that I knew he was with a client. Maybe even a potential client; there was an especially unguent quality to the way his hair fell over his forehead, his eyes hooded with concern. He's handsome, in the way any large predator is handsome-best appreciated from a safe distance. Up close the extra rows of teeth tend to be a distraction.
As if feeling my disapproval, John looked up and spotted me.
"Ah, Jessica!" he said as if his whole pitch had been waiting for this moment. "You must meet our newest client."
As there were nearly half a dozen legal assistants in cubicles between the two of us, we both charted an intersecting course and met up-as if by magic-by the impressive double doors to the office suite.
"Mrs. Falconer, this is Jessica Burnstein, a partner and one of our most brilliant attorneys."
The woman, who was older than I had suspected from John's level of intensity, gazed tremulously up at me. "Will she be on my case?"
"No," said John firmly. "I will be handling your case myself."
Older and richer, then.
The lady and I shook hands, and I applied the carefully calibrated smile lawyers use when they're meeting someone who has probably been wronged in some way but whose opportunity for vengeance/justice has arrived. The smile says, You're fine now, but I'm sorry for your loss/accident/partial dismemberment/inability to compete internationally in your chosen sport. After nearly twenty years of practice, it comes pretty easily.
John ushered Mrs. Falconer to the elevators, and I headed to my office. As I passed Laurel, my assistant, I told her to ask Valentina to come and see me.
Valentina is younger than me, hungrier than me, and after my job. I'm her mentor, so that's fine with me. It's been eight or nine years since I took her under my wing; she's ready to leave the nest, and I'm ready to make room. However, John was using Valentina's future as a stick to prod me with, and I was tired of it.
Valentina came in and shut the door behind her. She slinked-there is no other word, unless it's slunk-across the carpet and flowed into a chair. It's not her fault she's a partial liquid; she was born that way. Natural beauty is no more of an achievement than deformity is a punishment-it just is. Valentina is incredibly smart, and one of the hardest-working lawyers I've ever met. In a business where appearance contributes to success, she makes sure the first impression of beauty is quickly overwhelmed by the second and more lasting impression of competence. Beauty always fades, but it lasts so much longer if you lay a thick layer of intelligence and integrity underneath it.
"Good morning, Jess," said Valentina. "How goes it?"
"It goes," I replied evenly. "I have a feeling John is going to talk to me today about making you a partner."
"Yes, except I think he's going to be a sneaky bugger about it."
Her delicately arched eyebrows rose a little. "In what way?"
I shrugged. "In some way I haven't anticipated yet, because he likes to keep me on my toes. Has he said anything to you?"
She shook her head. "Nope. Not a word."
I looked at her. Was it possible she was lying? A momentary flicker of doubt . . . but she saw it in my eyes and leaned forward.
"Jessica, he's not the only one with a plan, remember? Don't underestimate me. I want to make partner, and I want you to be head of litigation so I can slipstream you all the way to the Supreme Court." She sat back. "Jessica, a wise woman once pointed out to me that men have dominated the legal profession for decades and used their collective power to improve things for other men, both inside and outside of the law. It's our turn now."
"Who told you that? Me?"
"No, my grandmother."
"The one that's a judge?"
"No, the one that's a hairdresser."
"Right." I paused. "So . . . you're ready?"
"I'm ready, and so are you. Go on your trip and don't let him ruin it by coming along inside your head."
"That's a horrible thought."
She stood up, again appearing to defy the laws of physics. "You're welcome." She turned and walked to the door, pausing once more. "Plus, if you can handle a sixteen-year-old girl, you can handle a fifty-five-year-old guy."
"You would think."
She left, and I swung my chair around and gazed out the window. Across the canyons of downtown Los Angeles was a skyscraper that featured a glass slide on the outside of the seventieth floor. My daughter Emily and I had gone down it once, and I'd been much less scared than I'd expected. The thought of the lawsuit that would arise from dropping a tourist a thousand feet onto a busy stretch of downtown LA told me they'd probably made the slide strong enough to drive a truck down. Emily had stopped halfway down the slide to examine the construction and post pictures to Instagram, and afterwards we'd had one of the few conversations in recent memory that hadn't devolved into an argument about her future. I thought about our upcoming trip to visit colleges, and wondered if we could work something life-threatening into the itinerary every day in order to maintain the peace.
Laurel buzzed me. "Jessica, John wants to see you in his office when you have a minute."
"Alright, let him know I'm on my way."
But I waited ten minutes, because, you know, power move.
John was sharpening his scythe as I came in-wait, did I say scythe? I meant pencil.
I wondered if he always said ah before he said my name, and I'd somehow failed to notice it. Maybe he thought my name was Ahjessica?
"John," I replied, proving that we were at least each talking to the right person. I started to sit down, whereupon he told me to take a seat, as if I'd been waiting for permission. That BS might work on a junior lawyer, but I'd been at this game too long.
"Already taken, thanks," I said. "How can I help you?" By phrasing it that way, I put him on the back foot, because he'd actually requested my presence, not my help. Pay attention, folks, it's a master class in here.
"You can't," he laughed, which is why he's the boss. "But I wanted to talk to you about Valentina."
I nodded and waited.
He leaned forward. "Look, you and I are similar people. We know how things work, right?"
Forced teaming. Google it. It's what manipulators do to make you feel a connection they can then exploit. I've read The Gift of Fear (which everyone should), so I said, "I don't think we're all that similar, John, and you wanted to talk about Valentina?"
Sidenote: I actually like John, despite the fact he often behaves like a jerk. He's an incredible lawyer who thinks better on his feet than most people do sitting down, and he's taught me everything I know. But I trust him only because I know how he lies.
John smiled. "I like Valentina, she's extremely capable."
He regarded me narrowly for a moment, then relaxed his face. It's his way of miming, I'm not sure I understand you . . . Wait, now I get it because, damn, I'm smart. He must practice in a mirror. "I know you think she should make partner this year."
"I thought she should have made partner last year." My face betrayed nothing, which I'm long past practicing in a mirror.
"But there is the issue of the board."
My breathing was steady. "In what sense?"
"Well, you know . . ."
"No, I don't."
"The board wouldn't want it to look like we were, you know, reacting to current events."
"Which current events, John? Please speak plainly." (Again, sidenote: When buying time, phrase your delaying tactics as mild criticismI'm sorry, that didn't make sense/Please restate that, it wasn't clear/Your language is garbled, please remove that scorpion from your mouth. It makes your conversational opponent scramble a little. Side sidenote: If your questioner has a scorpion in her mouth, deal with that first.)
He appeared to be mildly uncomfortable, which is one of his tells. John has never been mildly uncomfortable in his life; he was about to lay on a thick layer of BS.
"Well, the #MeToo thing, the harassment thing . . ."
I raised my eyebrows, waiting for him to continue.
"The board is concerned if we promote too many women at once, it will look like we're reacting to social pressure."
"Social pressure to promote capable people?"
"Which other women are up for partnership?"
"Janet Manolo. Just Janet."
I took a breath. "And the board thinks making two women partner in one year is too many? Last year you made three men partners and no one wondered about that." I suddenly thought of the RBG quote about enough women on the Supreme Court being nine.
He capped and uncapped a pen. "Well, there was the thing with Jackson . . ."
Jackson was a dirty word around the office. He was a partner who'd been fired earlier that year, much to the satisfaction of every other lawyer in Los Angeles, most of whom had hated him for years. I frowned at John and angled my head slightly. "The 'thing' being the way he offered an assistant a gram of coke to show him her breasts? Are we calling that a 'thing' now? It was illegal, it was repulsive, and it was why he got fired and sued in civil court. What on earth does Jackson's inability to do his job have to do with Valentina's brilliance at hers?"
"It's not me, Jessica, it's the board. They're worried about how it looks."
I frowned, and bounced my foot. "John, you're forgetting who you're talking to. Please spell out what you mean, because I'm going out of town in two days and I don't have time to parse and reparse what you're saying, looking for clues."
John pretended to consider whether to speak plainly or not, when obviously he'd been working up to this moment the whole time. He'd manipulated me into asking him to do it so he could make me responsible. I think I'm pretty good at directing testimony, but John really is a master.
He turned up his palms. "Look, if you really want me to spell it out . . ."
I said nothing. Fool me once.
John hesitated, which he only ever does on purpose. "Valentina is a woman. She's . . ." Again, pretending to be uncomfortable, John continued, "A very attractive woman. The board is concerned if we promote her to partner this year, this soon after the Jackson thing . . ."
I uncrossed my legs and leaned forward. "Stop calling it a 'thing,' John, like it was an adorable eccentricity. He didn't wear cowboy hats in the office or collect Disney miniatures. He broke several laws, state and federal, traumatized another human being, and cost the firm millions of dollars and untold reputation points."
"Precisely. The board is worried if we make Valentina a partner this year, people will think it's payback for Jackson. That he did something to her, and we're making her a partner to keep her quiet."
I considered this for a moment. It was perfect in its evil, sexist subtlety.
"Let me see if I understand you, John."
He raised his eyebrows at me, and for a split second I saw that he was actually unsure what I was going to say. He doesn't like to be in that position. I put him out of his misery.
"You're saying that a brilliant lawyer, a woman who has worked for the firm for over a decade, brought in major clients and extensive revenue, who regularly speaks on international panels and authors articles in journals, in two languages-"
"I know Valentina is qualified, Jessica."
I raised my hand. "You're saying this person cannot be promoted as she deserves because another lawyer-a male lawyer-behaved like a total pig."
"Well, people might assume . . ."
"That she only got promoted because she had dirt on Jackson? The implication being that he assaulted her, too, but rather than coldcock him into next week and have him arrested, she would use it to further her own career?"
For the first time in my experience, John genuinely looked uncomfortable.
"You know how people talk, Jessica."
I shook my head. "No, John, I know how male lawyers talk, and how they assume other people think. Valentina deserves to make partner because of her work. That should be the only criterion, John, and would be the only criterion if she were a man." I was steamed. "Let me be very clear. If you don't promote Valentina-and Janet, who also deserves it-I will resign in protest."
John looked at me calmly, and I suddenly wondered if he'd wanted to force me into this position all along. "If you do that, people will think it's because of Jackson, too."
I took a breath. "John, not everyone looks at the actions of women and assumes that somewhere a man is responsible for them. That's you."
Reading Group Guide
I Was Told It Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman
Questions for Discussion
1. At the beginning of the book, Jessica and Emily don’t have a very good connection, not because they don’t love each other but because they’ve slowly grown apart. What’s the difference between experiencing that kind of relationship damage compared to, say, a sudden breakup?
2. Jessica is a single parent by choice and a working mother. What cultural assumptions are made about both of those groups, and how do those assumptions affect Jessica’s opinion of herself?
3. Jessica talks about the differences between parenting younger children and teenagers. Do her experiences match up with your own?
4. Emily is a very independent young woman. What impact do you think Jessica’s parenting had on Emily?
5. Emily often compares herself to other young people and finds herself wanting. What strengths do you see in her character that she may not be able to see in herself?
6. Emily talks about the pressure on young people to be perfect in every way. How has that pressure changed over time, and why does it feel particularly hard to be young these days?
7. Jessica talks about the pressure on parents to be seen as “good at” parenting, as reflected in their children’s success. Is this something new, or has it always been an issue?
8. As the tour progresses, both Jessica and Emily learn new things about each other. How does travel impact the way we see other people?
9. Towards the end of the novel, Jessica reflects that maybe she’ll be a better parent once Emily is older. How has your relationship with your parents changed over time and, if you have children, once you yourself became a parent?
10. Ultimately Emily and Jessica are both changed by this trip. Have you ever taken a trip that had an unexpected personal outcome?