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Chapter One Chapter One
Twenty-five. That’s the number I count to every morning before I even open my eyes. It’s a meditative calming technique that helps your brain with memory, focus, and attention, but the real reason I do it is because that’s how long it takes my boyfriend, David, to get out of bed next to me and flip the coffee maker on, and for me to smell the beans.
Thirty-six. That’s how many minutes it takes me to brush my teeth, shower, and put on face toner, serum, cream, makeup, and a suit for work. If I wash my hair, it’s forty-three.
Eighteen. That’s the walk to work in minutes from our Murray Hill apartment to East Forty-Seventh Street, where the law offices of Sutter, Boyt and Barn are located.
Twenty-four. That’s how many months I believe you should be dating someone before you move in with them.
Twenty-eight. The right age to get engaged.
Thirty. The right age to get married.
My name is Dannie Kohan. And I believe in living by numbers.
“Happy Interview Day,” David says when I walk into the kitchen. Today. December 15. I’m wearing a bathrobe, hair spun up into a towel. He’s still in his pajamas, and his brown hair has a significant amount of salt and pepper for someone who has not yet crossed thirty, but I like it. It makes him look dignified, particularly when he wears glasses, which he often does.
“Thank you,” I say. I wrap my arms around him, kiss his neck and then his lips. I’ve already brushed my teeth, but David never has morning breath. Ever. When we first started dating, I thought he was getting up out of bed before me to swoosh some toothpaste in there, but when we moved in together, I realized it’s just his natural state. He wakes up that way. The same cannot be said of me.
“Coffee is ready.”
He squints at me, and my heart tugs at the look on his face, the way it scrunches all up when he’s trying to pay attention but doesn’t have his contacts in yet.
He takes a mug down and then pours. I go to the refrigerator, and when he hands me the cup, I add a dollop of creamer. Coffee mate, hazelnut. David thinks it’s sacrilegious but he buys it, to indulge me. This is the kind of man he is. Judgmental, and generous.
I take the coffee cup and go sit in our kitchen nook that overlooks Third Avenue. Murray Hill isn’t the most glamorous neighborhood in New York, and it gets a bad rap (every Jewish fraternity and sorority kid in the tristate area moves here after graduation. The average street style is a Penn sweatshirt), but there’s nowhere else in the city where we’d be able to afford a two-bedroom with a full kitchen in a doorman building, and between the two of us, we make more money than a pair of twenty-eight-year-olds has any right to.
David works in finance as an investment banker at Tishman Speyer, a real estate conglomerate. I’m a corporate lawyer. And today, I have an interview at the top law firm in the city. Wachtell. The mecca. The pinnacle. The mythological headquarters that sits in a black-and-gray fortress on West Fifty-Second Street. The top lawyers in the country all work there. The client list is unfathomable; they represent everyone: Boeing. ING. AT&T. All of the biggest corporate mergers, the deals that determine the vicissitudes of our global markets, happen within their walls.
I’ve wanted to work at Wachtell since I was ten years old and my father used to take me into the city for lunch at Serendipity and a matinee. We’d pass all the big buildings in Times Square, and then I’d insist we walk to 51 West Fifty-Second Street so I could gaze up at the CBS building, where Wachtell has historically had its offices since 1965.
“You’re going to kill it today, babe,” David says. He stretches his arms overhead, revealing a slice of stomach. David is tall and lanky. All of his T-shirts are too small when he stretches, which I welcome. “You ready?”
When this interview first came up, I thought it was a joke. A headhunter calling me from Wachtell, yeah right. Bella, my best friend—and the proverbial surprise-obsessed flighty blonde—must have paid someone off. But no, it was for real. Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz wanted to interview me. Today, December 15. I marked the date in my planner in Sharpie. Nothing was going to erase this.
“Don’t forget we’re going to dinner to celebrate tonight,” David says.
“I won’t know if I got the job today,” I tell him. “That’s not how interviews work.”
“Really? Explain it to me, then.” He’s flirting with me. David is a great flirt. You wouldn’t think it, he’s so buttoned-up most of the time, but he has a great, witty mind. It’s one of the things I love most about him. It was one of the things that first attracted me to him.
I raise my eyebrows at him and he downshifts. “Of course you’ll get the job. It’s in your plan.”
“I appreciate your confidence.”
I don’t push him, because I know what tonight is. David is terrible with secrets, and an even worse liar. Tonight, on this, the second month of my twenty-eighth year, David Andrew Rosen is going to propose to me.
“Two Raisin Bran scoops, half a banana?” he asks. He’s holding out a bowl to me.
“Big days are bagel days,” I say. “Whitefish. You know that.”
Before we find out about a big case, I always stop at Sarge’s on Third Avenue. Their whitefish salad rivals Katz’s downtown, and the wait, even with a line, is never more than four and a half minutes. I revel in their efficiency.
“Make sure you bring gum,” David says, sliding in next to me. I bat my eyes and take a sip of coffee. It goes down sweet and warm.
“You’re here late,” I tell him. I’ve just realized. He should have been gone hours ago. He works market hours. It occurs to me he might not be going to the office at all today. Maybe he still has to pick up the ring.
“I thought I’d see you off.” He flips his watch over. It’s an Apple. I got it for him for our two-year anniversary, four months ago. “But I should jet. I was going to work out.”
David never works out. He has a monthly membership to Equinox I think he’s used maybe twice in two and a half years. He’s naturally lean, and runs sometimes on the weekends. The wasted expense is a point of contention between us, so I don’t bring it up this morning. I don’t want anything to get in the way of today, and certainly not this early.
“Sure,” I say. “I’m gonna get ready.”
“But you have time.” David pulls me toward him and threads a hand into the collar of my robe. I let it linger for one, two, three, four...
“I thought you were late. And I can’t lose focus.”
He nods. Kisses me. He gets it. “In that case, we’re doubling up tonight,” he says.
“Don’t tease me.” I pinch his biceps.
My cell phone is ringing where it sits plugged in on my nightstand in the bedroom, and I follow the noise. The screen fills with a photo of a blue-eyed, blond-haired shiksa goddess sticking her tongue sideways at the camera. Bella. I’m surprised. My best friend is only awake before noon if she’s been up all night.
“Good morning,” I tell her. “Where are you? Not New York.”
She yawns. I imagine her stretching on some seaside terrace, a silk kimono pooling around her.
“Not New York. Paris,” she says.
Well that explains her ability to speak at this hour. “I thought you were leaving this evening?” I have her flight on my phone: UA 57. Leaves Newark at 6:40 p.m.
“I went early,” she says. “Dad wanted to do dinner tonight. Just to bitch about Mom, clearly.” She pauses, and I hear her sneeze. “What are you doing today?”
Does she know about tonight? David would have told her, I think, but she’s also bad at keeping secrets—especially from me.
“Big day for work and then we’re going to dinner.”
“Right. Dinner,” she says. She definitely knows.
I put the phone on speaker and shake out my hair. It will take me seven minutes to blow it dry. I check the clock: 8:57 a.m. Plenty of time. The interview isn’t until eleven.
“I almost tried you three hours ago.”
“Well, that would have been early.”
“But you’d still pick up,” she says. “Lunatic.”
Bella knows I leave my phone on all night.
Bella and I have been best friends since we were seven years old. Me, Nice Jewish Girl from the Main Line of Philadelphia. Her, French-Italian Princess whose parents threw her a thirteenth birthday party big enough to stop any bat mitzvah in its tracks. Bella is spoiled, mercurial, and more than a little bit magical. It’s not just me. Everywhere she goes people fall at her feet. She is the easiest to love, and gives love freely. But she’s fragile, too. A membrane of skin stretches so thinly over her emotions it’s always threatening to burst.
Her parents’ bank account is large and easily accessible, but their time and attention are not. Growing up, she practically lived at my house. It was always the two of us.
“Bells, I gotta go. I have that interview today.”
“That’s right! Watchman!”
“What are you going to wear?”
“Probably a black suit. I always wear a black suit.” I’m already mentally thumbing through my closet, even though I’ve had the suit chosen since they called me.
“How thrilling,” she deadpans, and I imagine her scrunching up her small pin nose like she’s just smelled something unsavory.
“When are you back?” I ask.
“Probably Tuesday,” she says. “But I don’t know. Renaldo might meet me, in which case we’d go to the Riviera for a few days. You wouldn’t think it, but it’s great this time of year. No one is around. You have the whole place to yourself.”
Renaldo. I haven’t heard his name in a beat. I think he was before Francesco, the pianist, and after Marcus, the filmmaker. Bella is always in love, always. But her romances, while intense and dramatic, never last for more than a few months. She rarely, if ever, calls someone her boyfriend. I think the last one might have been when we were in college. And what of Jacques?
“Have fun,” I say. “Text me when you land and send me pictures, especially of Renaldo, for my files, you know.”
“Love you,” I say.
“Love you more.”
I blow-dry my hair and keep it down, running a flat iron over the hairline and the ends so it doesn’t frizz up. I put on small pearl stud earrings my parents gave me for my college graduation, and my favorite Movado watch David bought me for Hanukkah last year. My chosen black suit, fresh from the dry cleaners, hangs on the back of my closet door. When I put it on, I add a red-and-white ruffled shirt underneath, in Bella’s honor. A little spark of detail, or life, as she would say.
I come back into the kitchen and give a little spin. David’s made little to no progress on getting dressed or leaving. He’s definitely taking the day off. “What do we think?” I ask him.
“You’re hired,” he says. He puts a hand on my hip and gives me a light kiss on the cheek.
I smile at him. “That’s the plan,” I say.
Sarge’s is predictably empty at 10 a.m.—it’s a morning-commute place—so it only takes two minutes and forty seconds for me to get my whitefish bagel. I eat it walking. Sometimes I stand at the counter table at the window. There are no stools, but there’s usually room to stash my bag.
The city is all dressed up for the holidays. The streetlamps lit, the windows frosted. It’s thirty-one degrees out, practically balmy by New York winter standards. And it hasn’t snowed yet, which makes walking in heels a breeze. So far, so good.
I arrive at Wachtell’s headquarters at 10:45 a.m. My stomach starts working against me, and I toss the rest of the bagel. This is it. The thing I’ve worked the last six years for. Well, really, the thing I’ve worked the last eighteen years for. Every SAT prep test, every history class, every hour studying for the LSAT. The countless 2 a.m. nights. Every time I’ve been chewed out by a partner for something I didn’t do, every time I’ve been chewed out by a partner for something I did do, every single piece of effort has been leading me to, and preparing me for, this one moment.
I pop a piece of gum. I take a deep breath, and enter the building.
Fifty-one West Fifty-Second Street is giant, but I know exactly what door I need to enter, and what security desk I need to check in at (the entrance on Fifty-Second, the desk right in front). I’ve rehearsed this chain of events so many times in my head, like a ballet. First the door, then the pivot, then a sashay to the left and a quick succession of steps. One two three, one two three...
The elevator doors open to the thirty-third floor, and I suck in my breath. I can feel the energy, like candy to the vein, as I look around at the people moving in and out of glass-doored conference rooms like extras on the show Suits, hired for today—for me, for my viewing pleasure alone. The place is in full bloom. I get the feeling that you could walk in here at any hour, any day of the week, and this is what you would see. Midnight on Saturday, Sunday at 8 a.m. It’s a world out of time, functioning on its own schedule.
This is what I want. This is what I’ve always wanted. To be somewhere that stops at nothing. To be surrounded by the pace and rhythm of greatness.
“Ms. Kohan?” A young woman greets me where I stand. She wears a Banana Republic sheath dress, no blazer. She’s a receptionist. I know, because all lawyers are required to wear suits at Wachtell. “Right this way.”
“Thank you so much.”
She leads me around the bullpen. I spot the corners, the offices on full display. Glass and wood and chrome. The thump thump thump of money. She leads me into a conference room with a long mahogany table. On it sits a glass tumbler of water and three glasses. I take in this subtle and revealing piece of information. There are going to be two partners in here for the interview, not one. It’s good, of course, it’s fine. I know my stuff forward and backward. I could practically draw a floor plan of their offices for them. I’ve got this.
Two minutes stretch to five minutes stretch to ten. The receptionist is long gone. I’m contemplating pouring myself a glass of water when the door opens and in walks Miles Aldridge. First in his class at Harvard. Yale Law Journal. And a senior partner at Wachtell. He’s a legend, and now he’s in the same room as me. I inhale.
“Ms. Kohan,” he says. “So glad you could make this date work.”
“Naturally, Mr. Aldridge,” I say. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
He raises his eyebrows at me. He’s impressed I know his name sight unseen. Three points.
“Shall we?” He gestures for me to sit, and I do. He pours us each a glass of water. The other one sits there, untouched. “So,” he says. “Let’s begin. Tell me a little bit about yourself.”
I work through the answers I’ve practiced, honed, and sculpted over the last few days. From Philadelphia. My father owned a lighting business, and when I was not even ten years old, I helped him with contracts in the back office. In order to sort and file to my heart’s content, I had to read into them a bit, and I fell in love with the organization, the way language—the pure truth in the words—was nonnegotiable. It was like poetry, but poetry with outcome, poetry with concrete meaning—with actionable power. I knew it was what I wanted to do. I went to Columbia Law and graduated second in my class. I clerked for the Southern District of New York before accepting the reality of what I’d always known, which is that I wanted to be a corporate lawyer. I wanted to practice a kind of law that is high stakes, dynamic, incredibly competitive, and yes, offers me the opportunity to make a lot of money.
Because it’s what I was born to do, what I have trained for, and what has led me here today, to the place I always knew I’d be. The golden gates. Their headquarters.
We go through my resume, point by point. Aldridge is surprisingly thorough, which is to my benefit, as it gives me more time to express my accomplishments. He asks me why I think I’d be a good fit, what kind of work culture I gravitate toward. I tell him that when I stepped off the elevator and saw all the endless movement, all the frenzied bustle, I felt as if I were home. It’s not hyperbole, he can tell. He chuckles.
“It’s aggressive,” he says. “And endless, as you say. Many spin out.”
I cross my hands on the table. “I can assure you,” I tell him. “That won’t be a problem here.”
And then he asks me the proverbial question. The one you always prepare for because they always ask:
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I inhale, and then give him my airtight answer. Not just because I’ve practiced, which I have. But because it’s true. I know. I always have.
I’ll be working here, at Wachtell, as a senior associate. I’ll be the most requested in my year on M&A cases. I’m incredibly thorough and incredibly efficient; I’m like an X-ACTO knife. I’ll be up for junior partner.
And outside of work?
I’ll be married to David. We’ll be living in Gramercy Park, on the park. We’ll have a kitchen we love and enough table space for two computers. We’ll go to the Hamptons every summer; the Berkshires, occasionally, on weekends. When I’m not in the office, of course.
Aldridge is satisfied. I’ve clinched it, I can tell. We shake hands, and the receptionist is back, ushering me through the offices and to the elevators that deliver me once again to the land of the mortals. The third glass was just to throw me off. Good shot.
After the interview I go downtown, to Reformation, one of my favorite clothing stores in SoHo. I took the day off from work and it’s only lunchtime. Now that the interview is over, I can turn my attention to tonight, to what is coming.
When David told me he had made a reservation at the Rainbow Room, I immediately knew what it meant. We had talked about getting engaged. I knew it would be this year, but I had thought it would have happened this past summer. The holidays are crazy, and the winter is David’s busy time at work. But he knows how much I love the city in lights, so it’s happening tonight.
“Welcome to Reformation,” the salesgirl says. She’s wearing black wide-legged pants and a tight white turtleneck. “What can I help you with?”
“I’m getting engaged tonight,” I say. “And I need something to wear.”
She looks confused for half a second, and then her face brightens. “How exciting!” she says. “Let’s look around. What are you thinking?”
I take barrels into the dressing room. Skirts and low-backed dresses and a pair of red crepe pants with a matching loose camisole. I put the red outfit on first, and when I do, it’s perfect. Dramatic but still classy. Serious but with a little edge.
I look at myself in the mirror. I hold out my hand.
Today, I think. Tonight.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for In Five Years includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Rebecca Serle. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In Five Years is a striking, moving love story about Dannie Kohan, a high-powered corporate lawyer who has everything planned out. The story opens on the day she interviews for her dream job, nails it, and gets engaged to her longtime boyfriend—all according to her five-year plan. That night, when she and her new fiancé get home, she falls asleep on the couch. But when she wakes up, she’s suddenly in a different apartment, with a different ring on her finger, in bed beside a very different man. She looks over at the muted TV playing the news and sees the date: it’s 2025, five years in the future.
After a very confusing hour, Dannie wakes up again back in her normal life. She tries to shake the dream—or was it premonition?—by busying herself in work. She tells no one about it, not even her best friend, Bella. Then one day, four and a half years later, she comes face-to-face with the man from her dream. This stunning, heartbreaking story will leave you thinking about the unpredictable nature of destiny and make you want to call your best friend immediately.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. From the very beginning of the book, we learn that Dannie has rules and plans laid out for everything in her life. Do you believe this helps or hinders her? How does her philosophy regarding keeping everything in its place change over the course of the novel?
2. To Dannie, the law is “like poetry, but poetry with outcome, poetry with concrete meaning—with actionable power” (page 10). Later she describes the law by saying that “everything is there in black and white” (page 142). How does the law empower Dannie? To what extent do you think the law shapes how rigidly she sees the world? As the book goes on, power is often taken out of Dannie’s hands. Do you think her background makes this lack of control harder for her than it might be for others?
3. While Bella is a tragic character, she is not painted simply in an angelic light. Early on in the story, Dannie describes her as being “spoiled, mercurial, and more than a little bit magical” (page 6). Is Bella’s portrayal as a complicated, sometimes flawed character unique given the ending of the book and the typical depiction of the tragic heroine?
4. The scene between Dannie and Aaron in Chapter 3 is mirrored by the same scene in Chapter 41. How did your impressions of the two characters change over the course of the book? Why do you think the author chose to frame the story with two identical scenes that will mean different things to the reader at different points in the story?
5. Bella gifts Dannie a print by the artist Allen Grubesic that reads: I WAS YOUNG I NEEDED THE MONEY. All the characters in the book are well-off financially by the time we meet them. What do you think the print’s message means in the context of the story?
6. Dannie believes that “Bella lives in a world I do not understand, populated by phrases and philosophies that apply only to people like her. People, maybe, who do not yet know tragedy” (pages 44–45). How do you think the death of Dannie’s brother at such a young age affects her outlook? Do you think she envies Bella for not carrying a similar burden, or does she look up to her for it? How do you think the fact that Dannie has already lost someone close to her affects her when Bella’s diagnosis is revealed?
7. Bella introduces her new boyfriend as Greg, but, of course, Dannie already knows him as Aaron and has a hard time referring to him as anything other than Aaron. Why do you think he is introduced to us with two different names? Is Bella’s version of him different from Dannie’s version of him?
8. Dannie visits a therapist, Dr. Christine, once after her dream and once after she meets Aaron in real life. Why do you think she sees Dr. Christine only twice? What decisions does Dannie make after leaving these appointments?
9. How does Dannie and Bella’s relationship change after Bella’s diagnosis? How does it affect the other relationships in Dannie’s and Bella’s lives? Why do you think it’s easier for Bella to be around Aaron than it is for her to be around Dannie?
10. Were you surprised that Dannie and Aaron kissed when he reveals that the apartment is a gift from Bella? Do you think it amounts to a betrayal of Bella’s trust? How does Dannie and Aaron’s connection to Bella intensify their own relationship?
11. Fate is a concept that is played with often throughout the novel. Dannie fights to change the fate she saw laid out in her vision. Aaron told Bella he was fated to end up with her. How do fate and free will interact in the novel? Do you think the book comes down on the side of one over the other?
12. Near the end of the book, Bella tells Dannie that she is meant to have love beyond her wildest dreams because “that’s the way you love me” (page 205). How does the book portray the roles of romantic and platonic love? How did the book subvert the idea that the great love of Dannie’s life would be one of the two men we were introduced to at the beginning of the novel?
13. Were you surprised that Dannie and Aaron did not end up together? What do you think this means for Dannie’s journey and her future relationships?
14. Magical realism is an element of the story but only when it comes to Dannie’s ability to see one evening five years in her future. Why do you think there’s a magical component in this one instance but nowhere else? Did the book’s hyperrealistic premise affect your expectations for how it would end?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Iconic New York City locations, restaurants, and shops are mentioned throughout the novel. Next time you visit New York City, take a walking tour to some of them, including the Rainbow Room, Buvette, Bryant Park, and Rubirosa. Find a full guide in the illustrated reading group guide on the author’s website, rebeccaserle.com.
2. In Five Years often plays with preconceptions and blind spots when it comes to fate, love, and friendship. Consider your own opinions on the themes discussed in the book: Do you believe in fate over free will? Are any of the strongest relationships in your own life with someone other than a romantic partner? Where do you see yourself in five years, and how fixed is that vision of the future?
3. Read The Dinner List with your book club (if you haven’t already!) and compare how the roles of love, friendship, and magical realism come into play in both of Rebecca Serle’s recent novels.
A Conversation with Rebecca Serle
Q: In Five Years and The Dinner List both take place in New York City, and the city is a central feature of both novels. How did you create such a sense of place for your books? Is the NYC of The Dinner List different from the one in In Five Years? Will you continue to write novels based in NYC, or will they be set elsewhere?
A: I have been in love with New York City since I was a little girl—Manhattan has always been almost a person to me. It’s romantic, mercurial, and specific. The city is also the ideal place to set a book because it’s so full of connection—street corners, cramped apartments, and subway cars. It’s so easy to smack up against someone else’s humanity there. Sabrina’s New York in The Dinner List is less privileged than Dannie’s and probably mirrors my early years in the city better. Both novels have lots of my old haunts, though! You’ll find my favorite restaurants, coffee shops, and bars where I, too, have experienced heartbreak on every page. I lived it before I ever wrote about it, and I hope that comes through in my work.
I moved to Los Angeles this year, and my new novel takes place, in part, in California. I could see setting subsequent work in my new (very sunny) home.
Q: Dannie and Bella are such distinct characters. Why did you choose to portray them so differently? Do you think they help balance each other out? Who do you think you have more in common with, the pragmatic, by-the-numbers Dannie or the artistic, free-spirited Bella?
A: I knew that in order for the conceit to work, Dannie would have to be someone with an airtight life plan. She would have to know exactly what she wanted and was building toward. Dannie comes by her uptight nature honestly. She lost her brother when she was young and has had the need to control her life since, to make sure she is never struck down by tragedy again. I also knew I wanted to give her a counterpoint in Bella. Bella does not have any of Dannie’s rules about life—she is open, creative, and impulsive. In many ways, Dannie’s journey over the course of the novel is to embrace her own Bella-ness. I think I’m a pretty clear mix of the two, but, gun to my head, I’d say I’m more like Dannie.
Q: Is the relationship between Dannie and Bella reminiscent of any of the friendships in your own life?
A: The female friendships in my life are of paramount importance. They are my great loves. I think in some relationships I’m the Dannie and in some I’m the Bella. I turn to my friends for everything, like relationship advice and work input. I moved across the country this year and could never have done it without their support. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have them.
Q: The novel spans five years. How did you choose what to show us and what to summarize?
A: The plot doesn’t really accelerate in a significant way until Dannie meets Aaron again. So I knew that what happened in the years between, while maybe being interesting for Dannie’s life, would not be particularly interesting for the purposes of our story. From there, I needed about six months to tell the story I wanted to tell, and to earn the emotional arc.
Q: Why did you decide to have Dannie be a lawyer? What research into law did you do in order to write about her career? Was it important to you to portray your two female lead characters as having high-powered, successful careers?
A: I am lucky enough to have a lot of super successful women in my life, some of whom are corporate lawyers. I turned to them for advice, and also did research into the firm where Dannie works. Before Dannie, I had never written a character who was so unapologetic about her desire for financial success. I found her voice very satisfying—and surprising!—to write. I love that about her, and a lot of her ambitions mirror my own.
Q: Neither Dannie nor Bella is particularly close with her parents, and there is an emphasis on chosen family—especially when it comes to their lifelong relationship with each other. Are these kinds of essential friendships something you’ve explored in your past novels? How is chosen family important in your own life?
A: I’m my parents’ only child, and I think, as any only child knows, you need your friends to be like family. My girlfriends are my sisters, and they show up for me the way any blood relative would. I wanted to give Dannie and Bella that tie. Bella has been the great love of Dannie’s life. I relate to that level of loyalty and heart connection. I believe very strongly in chosen family.
Q: Speak to your exploration of fate versus free will in your novel. Did you know from the beginning that Dannie’s premonition would come to pass?
A: All of my novels since my very first book, When You Were Mine, are about the dialogue between choice and destiny. To me the most interesting question of our human existence is: “How much is in our control, and how much is going to happen regardless of what we do?” I knew that Dannie would live that hour and it would be exactly the same as the hour she lives at the beginning of the book, meaning all of the same things would happen. But I also knew it would mean something entirely different than what she’d been anticipating. That, to me, is really the thesis of the novel: we can think we know what is coming, but we can never know what it will mean.
Q: The book is framed as a love story, with two love interests that Dannie must choose between. How did you want to subvert the traditional love story narrative? Do you think readers will expect the change that happens midway through the book?
A: I’m not sure! But I can say I’m far more interested in writing about the complicated dynamics between women than I am about traditional romantic notions of love between a man and a woman. I love a good love story, but my books tend to feature female friendships front and center. I still think the most important relationship in The Dinner List is the one Sabrina has with Jessica, even though her love story with Tobias takes up more page space. Bella is the most important relationship in Dannie’s life, and I think that becomes clearer as the book goes on. That’s not to say David and Aaron are unimportant—they are extremely important. They’re just not as important as Bella.
Q: Was it challenging to write about Bella’s diagnosis and subsequent struggle with cancer? What research into ovarian cancer did you do in order to portray it?
A: It was extremely challenging, and I almost didn’t do it. For a while I tried to figure out a way for Bella not to have to get cancer, but I couldn’t come up with anything that would be as powerful or turn Dannie’s life upside down in the same way. Once I committed, I told my friend and fellow author Leila Sales how scared I was to write this. She told me to just stay close to Dannie, to write beside her, and to remind her that I was there. I still tear up thinking about that advice. It’s a writing philosophy I’m bringing to all my subsequent work.
For research, I spoke to doctors, visited the hospital, and researched both Bella’s diagnosis and subsequent treatment as best I could. I do not pretend to be a medical expert, and this book remains a work of fiction.
Q: Do you have any favorite books or movies that inspired you as you were writing In Five Years?
A: The novel opens with a quote from Nora Ephron. Her work in both film and books was hugely influential to me as a storyteller. In fact, she is one of the five people on my dinner list! I love any good New York love story. Someone Great, a film by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, was a must-see of last year. The Modern Love column, as well. I’ve read it weekly for fifteen years.
Q: Why did you choose to use magical realism in the premises of both In Five Years and The Dinner List? What do these magical elements allow you to explore that you would not be able to otherwise?
A: The magical element allows for the conceit to be more magnified. The magic in my novels is never particularly overarching. It’s really just the one thing that injects into the narrative in a way that allows for expansion. For The Dinner List, it’s the dinner table, obviously. But I think as time goes on we begin to forget the impossibility of this meal, and simply start focusing on the relationships that are unfolding. Similarly in In Five Years, the magic is the flash forward. It’s key to the plot, of course, but as Dannie integrates the experience into her life, so do we. It’s simply a tool for us to get where we need to go.
Q: The premise of The Dinner List is based on the question “If you could have dinner with any five people, alive or dead, who would it be?” In Five Years is based on the question “Where do you see yourself in five years?” What attracted you to the idea of recasting these casual conversation starters as the jumping off point for your recent novels?
A: The Dinner List took a long time to write, and in between when I began it and when I came back to finish it, my grandmother passed away. What was once a fun, zany conceit became very personal: What wouldn’t we give to have one last dinner with a person we love whom we’ve lost? The book grew out of my desire to explore that idea. For In Five Years, the question came closely with the conceit. I knew I wanted to explore the idea of seeing a future that looks very different from the one we are planning. I am also fascinated by scientific data that is suggesting that the future in fact influences the present. Perhaps the choices we are making are not building a moldable future, but are informed by one that has already solidified. It’s intriguing stuff!