The last thing Rudy expected was to wake up one Saturday morning, a widow at fifty-four years old. Now, ten months after the untimely death of his beloved wife, he’s still not sure how to move on from the defining tragedy of his life—but his new job is helping. After being downsized from his finance position, Rudy turned to his first love: the piano. Some people might be embarrassed to work as the piano player at Nordstrom, but for Rudy, there’s joy in bringing a little music into the world. And it doesn’t hurt that Sasha, the Hungarian men’s watch clerk who is finally divorcing her no-good husband, finds time to join him at the bench every now and then.
Just when Rudy and Sasha’s relationship begins to deepen, the police come to the store with an update about Rudy’s wife’s untimely death—a coworker has confessed to her murder—but Rudy’s actions are suspicious enough to warrant a second look at him, too. With Sasha’s husband suddenly reappearing, and Rudy’s daughter confronting her own marital problems, suddenly life becomes more complicated than Rudy and Sasha could have imagined.
With Winston’s trademark humor and sweetness that will appeal to readers of Jennifer Weiner and Fredrik Backman but is uniquely her own, Lolly Winston delivers a heartfelt and realistic portrait of loss and grief, hope and forgiveness, and two imperfect people coming together to create a perfect love story.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:November 15, 1961
Place of Birth:Hartford, Connecticut
Education:Simon¿s Rock Early College, 1977-79; B.A., Bard College, 1981; M.F.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1987
Read an Excerpt
Me for You
Like a fool, Rudy spoke to his wife Bethany for probably ten minutes before he realized she was dead. It was a Saturday morning and they lay in bed, neither of them having to work that day. He awoke with the idea that they should go to the beach for a long, relaxing walk.
“We can wait until this afternoon,” he mused, when Bee hadn’t stirred at his first suggestion of the idea. He didn’t want her to feel rushed. “By then the traffic will have thinned. I’ll pack us a picnic and we can watch the sun set. When it gets dark I’ll take you to that little wine bar on South Main, with all the great cheeses?” He rubbed a bit of the soft cotton fabric of her nightgown between his thumb and forefinger.
Bethany slept on her back, which was unusual for her. Rudy rolled away from her onto his side, facing the wall. He backed into her, nuzzling her hip with his bum.
“I’ll do everything. All you have to do is grab your sunscreen, a book, hat, and jacket for later.”
They joked about it, but Rudy felt ashamed of the fact that—since he’d been downsized—Bee had maintained her higher-paying, full-time job as a hospital pharmacist, while he’d gone from CTO to a part-time department store pianist. He’d played all his life, given lessons while in graduate school. Now he wore a silly rented tuxedo and rolled out cocktail and Broadway tunes—Plant a radish, get a radish!—while shoppers considered the scratchiness of one pashmina over another. The only pleasant part was playing Chopin for his Hungarian friend Sasha, who worked in Fine Watches. (She made him blush. Blush! How mortifying. A married crush?) The department store was only a temporary arrangement, however, until Bethany’s hospital pension kicked in.
Bee was the one who put a positive spin on everything—even his being downsized, when his tech company was acquired by a bigger company. It had been good news for all—stock, cash, T-shirts (there were always T-shirts)—and most employees stayed on. The bigger company in the merger/acquisition had wanted the “brainpower” of the little company. But not Rudy’s brainpower. Bethany considered it the first step toward their mutual early retirement. “It’s going to be a great chapter, you’ll see!” They were both fifty-four, and soon she’d be eligible for her pension. Their IRAs were plump, unlike many less fortunate workers in America, she reminded Rudy.
And at least Rudy worked only with a baby grand. Bethany was strapped with training employees—some were lovely but one was downright creepy. Meanwhile, Rudy did all he could to make Bee’s life easy, luxurious even, he hoped. He loved that she bragged to her friends about the lunches he packed or the extra housework he completed.
Rudy had been made redundant—in the words of Bee’s British brother-in-law. Rudy wished his brother-in-law would stop using this phrase. It made it sound as though there were a back-up, newer model of husband in the garage. This made Bethany giggle, but Rudy was serious—he couldn’t wait for her to retire and her pension to kick in. They were almost there: long trips, short trips, staycations, the opera, entertaining—all of which they both enjoyed.
Now he took a long, deep breath and reached around to give his wife a shoulder rub. Maybe Rudy should just shut up about the beach already. Clearly Bee was exhausted from her double shift the day before.
He turned and sat up. “I’ll fix you breakfast,” he said softly, in case she was just now beginning to wake. Funny, because no matter how tired she might be, she was usually the first one up. She liked to rise early and drink her first cup of coffee alone at the kitchen table with the crossword. But now she lay on her back, the eyelets of her pink nightgown perfect little crescents. Rudy thought of how beautiful she would always be, even as she aged.
“Well, now aren’t you the lazybones today,” he teased, shaking her gently. A jostling caress.
Then he realized Bethany wasn’t breathing.
His legs sliced through the covers as he leapt up and made his way around to her side of the bed. Her lips were dry and unresponsive as he pressed his mouth against hers. His CPR training came to him in a hysterical jumble as he blew into her lungs and pumped her chest three times below her breasts. He was gentle at first, not wanting to hurt her ribs. “Oh, Jesus!” Someone screamed. It was his voice, an animalistic howl. He stumbled and fell backwards, tripping over his pleas and pajama legs.
“Bethany, honey, come on, now.” He peeled back the covers. For some reason the stupid acronym PASS ran through his mind PASS, PASS: pull, aim, squeeze, sweep. Idiot: That was for using a fire extinguisher. He punched out 911 on the cordless phone. Gave the dispatcher their address. Yes, UNRESPONSIVE! JUST HURRY!
He plugged her nose, blew another three puffs of air, and pounded at her chest. Nothing. Repeat. Nothing. Her lips felt warmer. Didn’t they? The room buzzed with adrenaline. The walk on the beach—the sound of the entire ocean—was in the room now. He knelt beside the bed, his eyes even with hers, waiting for the ambulance. This wasn’t happening. It was one of those stupid TV dramas. Bee was as pale as the chalk-gray duvet. Still and chilly skin. He pulled the covers back up over her arms and legs and tucked them under her chin.
Right. All police cars in their town were equipped with those paddles now. There had been a fund-raiser for them. He should have called 911 sooner. His dumb outdated CPR! He raised Bee’s feet and put a pillow under them beneath the covers. He spoke to her, “You’re going to be all right, just—” Then the doorbell.
He did not want to leave her to let the paramedics into the house. He tugged on his khakis under his bathrobe. As quicky as Rudy charged down the stairs to the door, the ambulance workers sprinted back up. He made a U-turn to follow them.
The paramedics tried so hard for so long to revive Bethany. They were young and good-looking. Men and women with smooth, perfect muscles like Greek gods. They deftly steered her on a gurney down the hall, through the front door, and into the ambulance. Her knitting! Rudy stupidly thought he’d grab it from the hall chair; she might want to keep herself occupied while they waited for the doctors. The hospital always entailed waiting. That vest or scarf or whatever the heck it was she’d been making. She whipped through her woolly creations, plowed through novels with amazing comprehension, pruned the wisteria on a ladder all the way to the top of the trellis, and mowed the lawn herself, despite Rudy’s protests. If there were words to sum up Bethany, you really just needed one: capable. But kind, and funny, and smart, too. Certainly never one to correct people or show off her many abilities.
Here’s the kicker: Late the previous afternoon, Rudy had taken Bee to their family doctor, who had squeezed her in at the end of the day. She’d come home from work feeling off—minor chest pains, palpitations. Just not feeling herself. That dolt of a doctor sent her home, with Gas-X. And stress. Bee had pointed out that Rudy took wonderful care of her. Rudy would’ve been pleased if he weren’t so worried. She’d had an EKG in the office that “appeared to be normal.” So Einstein diagnosed her with gas. Bee didn’t go to the doctor very often, and she was not a complainer—their guy knew that, and he should have examined her more extensively, listened more carefully. Not been so quick to wrap up his day. Gas! It annoyed Rudy that Bethany, a hospital pharmacist, had this reverence for MDs. She’d giggled on the way home, embarrassed by her diagnosis, burping and quickly covering her mouth as she laughed, her cheeks not rosy enough, if you asked Rudy. Now Rudy recalled with anger the doctor’s sanguine confidence. Could you have a normal EKG then die of a heart attack?
Bethany had held Rudy’s hand in hers as she told the doctor what excellent care her husband took of her. But dinners and wine, and massages, and bag lunches brimming with fresh fruit, and twice-yearly vacations couldn’t take the place of a decent doctor diagnosing heart disease.
That morning Rudy decided to follow the ambulance in his car. Maybe they’d need the car once they were at the hospital. Rudy bitterly regretted this decision. He could have been holding Bee’s hand in the ambulance, stroking her forehead, whispering to her. Yet he’d been afraid he would somehow hamper Bee’s rescue. Maybe he’d get in the way of these swift paramedics, who boiled over with youth and capability.
Besides which, he’d had to pee. It was the most absurd need, given the circumstances, but Rudy hadn’t relieved himself since the night before. He’d traded his robe for a shirt, buttoned all wrong, and hung on to the gurney until it was in the ambulance. They’d loaded Bee with simultaneous speed and gentleness that touched Rudy. Then his bladder shot off a final warning signal. He told the medics he would follow. The woman paramedic looked at him a bit curiously—or at least he thought she did, later, going over the morning in his head. Over and over and over. All of the things he could have done differently. If only if only if only. All the way back to signs he might have missed the night before, beyond that to the doctor’s office, preceded by the days and weeks leading up to Bee’s death.
Some of the morning was a blur, but Rudy remained haunted by these two indignities among the events of his wife’s death: (1) He may not have properly performed CPR. (They told him he’d done fine, but still, he looked it up: the method had changed. His skills stank. Pounding his wife’s lovely chest!) (2) He took a whiz in his driveway. As the ambulance sped away, he clutched his car keys then stepped into the narrow passageway between his car and the neighbor’s hedge and hid behind the flaps of his khakis to relieve himself. “Good morning!” Rudy heard another neighbor bellow. (Had the dog-walking man not seen the ambulance?) Rudy hollered back “Hello!” too loudly before finishing and folding himself into his pants, climbing into the car and driving to the hospital.
He shuddered as he recalled the ambulance screaming down their street as he followed behind, stupidly thinking of the things he would bring her in the hospital later. Recounting the hours of that awful morning would always lead him to the same conclusion: He did not save his wife. No perfectly performed Mozart sonata could erase this fact. He could pound out the piano libretto for the Fifth Symphony at the mall until the startled shoppers bought every pashmina in the place. This would not bring back his wife.
Trauma. Survivor’s guilt. These words from his family doctor were meant to make Rudy feel better. But he didn’t want the names of conditions or a diagnosis for himself. What he wanted was that goddamned doctor to have provided a medical explanation during their appointment for why Bee wasn’t feeling well—for him to have sent her straightaway to the hospital, instead of sending her home with a recommendation for Gas-X. In retrospect, Rudy could hear a condescending we’re-all-getting-older! tone in the doctor’s voice that irritated him. He should have taken her straight to the ER. Gas. Rudy should have been able to save his wife. Period. He should have been a more proficient husband. A take-charge guy. Hell, he should have been a star conductor at a major symphony in a big city. A dignified shock of white hair would have sailed around his head as he led a choral group and mass of musicians in the orchestra pit, swooping into the glorious last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Sweat would have flown from his forehead. He should have been the one to die . . . right there! A heart attack. Collapsing with a final slice of the baton, doubling over within the folds of a real, designer tuxedo. The women in the audience would have swooned. His wife would have beamed, not knowing he was already gone. He would have gotten one of those real obits in the papers. “He left us doing what he loved to do most,” Bethany would quietly have remarked, all dignity and poise.
Bee would have been a content, comfortable widow, set up with all that she needed. Perhaps she’d have dated that widower in their neighborhood, the fellow who walked a golden retriever and complimented Bee profusely on her garden. He would have taken the place of Rudy on nature trails with Rudy and Bee’s beautiful granddaughter, Keira, identifying rare flower species left and right. Keira had no interest in the birds Rudy could spot from a distance, but she loved the colorful flowers that her grandmother pointed out to her. Rudy hated that guy now for knowing what ceanothus was, for admiring the blue flowers, which were, in fact, Bethany’s favorite, even though they hadn’t bloomed until four years after the shrub was planted. He hated that this guy knew the blooms were called dark star. The flower clusters had appeared for the second time just the other day.
Cecilia, who had joined her father at the hospital, and then followed him home, sadly, tearfully, at the end of the day, had cut a branch and put it in a small vase on the kitchen windowsill. “They’re not really cut flowers,” she explained to her father. “But Mom loved them so.”
CeCe’s husband, Spencer, was a doctor. He had met them at the hospital that afternoon, awkwardly patting Rudy’s back and saying that healthy-looking women, especially those who are slim and fit, were the “under-diagnosed.” Bethany wasn’t heavy, didn’t have high cholesterol or blood pressure, and so she’d been instructed to take gas tablets, walk off the chest pain, and “drink more water.”
Spencer hadn’t disagreed with these suggestions. As a doctor, he wasn’t particularly hands-on, touchy, or warm. Maybe that’s what he and CeCe shared—that all-business manner. So serious for young people. Rudy’s son-in-law was a neonatologist, a specialist in a perilous field, yet his calm was irksome. It verged on aloofness during this family crisis. Bee had loved her son-in-law, teased him for his scientific nerdiness, worked crossword puzzles with him, tousled his boyish brown hair. If you asked Rudy, Spencer would certainly have to work on his bedside manner.
“Drink more water is not medical advice!” Rudy shouted, so irritated it felt as though something in his neck might burst. “That imbecile doctor! I should have sensed something was wrong. Taken her to the ER.” He was surprised Spencer didn’t chime in to defend his profession.
“Oh, Dad,” CeCe insisted later that treacherous afternoon, her worried eyes searching his face, “there’s nothing you could have done. You must understand. Nothing. Even if it happened before bed.” She squeezed his hands in hers. For the first time ever—even though Rudy’s thick fingers could span entire octaves of piano keys—he felt that his little girl’s hands might be stronger than his. “She was asleep. She died peacefully.” CeCe closed her eyes, clearly comforted by this notion. Spencer gave her a light, brotherly hug.
Peacefully, perhaps, Rudy thought. But it should have been when Bethany was ninety.
They were back at the house by then, putting off the funeral home until their nerves were less jangled. Rudy felt that he and CeCe were suddenly all alone in the room, in the world. Tunnel vision made his distracted son-in-law seem far away, a stranger almost. Spencer kept checking his phone, and Rudy was sure it was not because he was checking on the sitter who was watching Keira. His son-in-law rubbed CeCe’s shoulders absentmindedly, got Rudy a glass of water. Again with the water! Then he declared there was an emergency at the hospital, and picked up his jacket.
“Seriously, Spencer?” CeCe asked. “Right now? You can’t get someone else on call? Are you fucking kidding me?”
Rudy had heard his daughter swear so rarely that he choked on his water as it went down, coughing and spitting into his hand. He agreed: Going in to work? On the day of Bethany’s death? While that afternoon was a blur, Rudy remembered this unusual coldness from his daughter’s husband.
“CeCe.” Spencer looked at his wife pleadingly, squeezed her upper arm.
What was he, the goddamned next-door neighbor? Rudy knew that CeCe felt that being married to a neonatologist meant that everyone else’s children were more important than their own. That she often felt abandoned. Yet the two had always seemed so well matched. With their mutual studious, almost-solemn demeanors, they had always seemed devoted to each other. CeCe was certainly well provided for.
“I’ll bring back dinner,” Spencer declared hopefully, quasi-heroically.
“Right, because we’re starving right about now,” CeCe uttered in a low growl.
She crossed her arms over her chest, clenched her jaw, tears silently streaming down her cheeks. She turned away from her father and husband, wobbled and faced out toward the backyard, clearly not seeing anything she looked at.
If only Bee had been there, to settle this odd lover’s spat. As the front door closed behind Spencer, Rudy took his daughter into his arms, kissed the silky top of her head, smelling the clean honeysuckle scent of her shampoo. Not for the first time that day, and not for the last time in the months to come, Rudy wished that his wife had lived rather than leaving him alone in the world without her.
Less than a week after her death, Rudy couldn’t imagine ever moving away from their house. The navy-blue flowers still graced the ceanothus bush. Every time golden-retriever guy passed by, he stopped to admire the flowers, shaking his head glumly at them. Had he had a crush on Bethany? Bee, who was as friendly and chatty and beautiful as her garden? You had to admire a woman who didn’t mind dirt or aphids or weeds. But who was this neighbor to pine after Rudy’s wife?
Rudy found himself in the upstairs bathroom, peeking out at the golden-retriever neighbor as he admired Bee’s ceanothus. Get your own damn flowering shrubs, he thought, as he scuttled to the side of the open window.
“Get out of here!” Rudy shouted down at the man. He felt mortified, but also enraged and excited. Across the street, another neighbor rolled his garbage and recycling bins to the curb. Trash day, dog walking. Rudy’s nerves were raw with resentment for these people who just carried on as though life were normal. He heard no sound from outside, noticing only that the window screen was caked with dust. Bethany always hired landscapers to wash the screens and windows once a year. Rudy didn’t even know where their number was or the name of their business. Nice husband. He’d let his wife work full-time and coordinate much of the maintenance for their beautiful home. For some reason this made Rudy hate the flower-identifying neighbor even more. That guy was probably a great husband.
“Get out of here!” Rudy hollered again, not even sure if the man and his dog were still on the lawn. Rudy collapsed to sit cross-legged on the cool bathroom tiles, tears rolling down his face, their salt making his chapped lips sting.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Me for You includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with the author, Lolly Winston. 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.
Waking up a widower at fifty-four years old was the last thing Rudy expected. Utterly devoted to his wife, Bethany, Rudy struggles to fill his days without having evenings with her to look forward to. At least his position as a department store pianist is a distraction from the tragedy in his life. The music and calm he knows it offers harried shoppers gives Rudy some respite, as does his friendship with Sasha, the Hungarian sales clerk who manages the watch counter.
Sasha carries her own tragedies: the loss of a child, memories from a broken marriage, and the countless obstacles faced by hardworking immigrants. Yet her optimism and kindness draw Rudy out of his shell, and his compassion invites something deeper than friendship for them both. As they begin to spend more time together, questions about Bethany’s sudden death continue to upset Rudy’s mourning and ability to grieve. As he spirals into his heartache, Sasha—who knows only too well the darkness of living with sorrow—offers a path to happiness. To reach it, though, Rudy and Sasha must each accept their own vulnerabilities and determine whether pain will continue to define their lives.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. One of the most poignant arguments the novel makes is how grief is a ridiculous, if tragic, experience for people to live through. Did you find that Rudy’s grief manifested in different ways throughout the novel? What kind of arc did his mourning take, and was it the “right” way to grieve? Discuss the stages Rudy goes through.
2. A defining characteristic of Rudy’s is his deep love of Bee and being married. How would you describe their relationship? Does their marriage change over time? How does their marriage compare to Sasha’s?
3. Discuss Rudy’s struggles with loneliness. How does being lonely compare with being alone? How does he respond to the swell of mourners offering help and support in the sudden absence of his wife? Do you find his reaction expected or out of character? Have you ever experienced an abrupt change in your support system?
4. Rudy views his daughter, CeCe, as organized, capable, and a “perfect child.” As Rudy’s grief overwhelms him, she steps up to care for his well-being. How does their relationship change from the beginning of the novel to the end? Does CeCe change? How does her marriage and family impact her bond with her father?
5. Is the piano crucial in Rudy’s life? Is music? How does the experience of playing music compare with listening to music? Do you relate to the shoppers who admit to Rudy that they wish they’d kept up with their lessons? Share your favorite musical memory: Were you playing? Listening to a live performance? Is it a favorite recording or song? How does music offer meaning to the different characters in Me for You?
6. How is mental health depicted in Me for You? Have you or a loved one experienced depression brought on by grief? Or perhaps overwhelming depression that requires medical help? Do you think Rudy is brave for confronting his depression and the trauma of Bee’s sudden death? Also, how might we honor those we’ve lost on special anniversaries, such as their birthdays or the anniversaries of their deaths? The holidays can be rough, too. Do you have special rituals or tips for depression during holidays or other trigger days? Consider the other patients Rudy meets in the hospital. Does mental health look different for them, or even for the women in his life?
7. In a shocking turn of events in the aftermath of Bee’s death, her coworker confesses to murder, a confession later proved to be false. Had you heard about false confessions before reading this book? How did this turn of events compound Rudy’s ability to “move on?”
8. Identify the different kinds of love and relationships (familial, friendship, romantic) you see in Me for You. Are any of them stronger than the others? Consider Rudy’s evening with his online match, Barbara: Why does Rudy feel “buoyed by his crazy date”? Can companionship be just as vital as a romance? Have you experienced or observed this kind of connection?
9. Who is “the PA lady”? Why do her announcements bother Rudy? Discuss whether hearing her voice is part of Rudy’s imagination or a symptom of stress. Do you have a similar trigger, annoyance, or regular occurrence in your home or workplace? If so, when does it bother you and why?
10. Were you surprised by the chapters from Bee’s point of view? Why was it important to include her perspective? How did it shape how you understood the other characters in the novel?
11. Do you share Rudy’s frustration with Detective Jenson? Why or why not?
12. Write down three words to describe Sasha. After sharing, discuss whether they were nouns (mother, friend, immigrant) or adjectives (thoughtful, grieving, reliable). Would she use these words to describe herself? Do you think her self-image evolves during the novel?
13. Sasha and Rudy connect through their dispositions, but also their shared experiences of personal loss. Does Stefi’s death define Sasha? Reflect on the differences between Stefi’s and Bee’s lives. Is it fair to compare levels of misfortune? Does Sasha’s bereavement raise memories of your own or loved ones’ lives? How does the author’s portrayal compare?
14. Sasha’s experience trying to navigate the legalities of divorce and disentangling herself from her ex-husband is unfortunately not an isolated occurrence. Many people find themselves without resources or advice during such difficult personal junctures. Discuss the options—or lack of thereof—Sasha had during her life.
15. Sasha’s work could be described as part of the service industry, as a retail clerk she serves the needs of her customers and as an attendant in the health club she serves the needs of its patrons. Despite Sasha’s positive experiences, people in these roles are often overlooked. Have you ever held a job in the service industry? How did it make you feel? How often do you stop to listen and interact with your bus driver, barista, security guard, or sales clerk?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Rudy’s piano playing is an essential part of the book that draws him and Sasha together. Are there any piano bars in your community your group could go to? Or do any members of your group play an instrument? Pick out a few songs or composers mentioned as Rudy and Bee’s favorites, such as Moonlight Sonata or pieces by Bartók or Chopin, to play or listen to together.
2. Rudy’s favorite part of the day was always spent in the kitchen preparing a meal for Bethany, and he cooks an elaborate French dish for Sasha the first time he invites her home. The meal he prepares, boeuf bourguignon, takes multiple steps throughout the day and involves a lot of prep work. Have you ever eaten boeuf bourguignon? Look up the recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and discuss meals that you’ve made for your family or loved ones that take a similar level of time and commitment. Ask your group to come prepared with recipes to swap, or prepare the savory beef stew yourself.
3. Bring a set of cards to your gathering and play a hand of gin rummy. Are you familiar with the rules? Ask someone in your group to teach you or make plans to learn together. Discuss whether you find it as therapeutic as the characters in Me for You. Suggest other kinds of games or activities that have been therapeutic in your life.
A Conversation with Lolly Winston
The period Rudy spends in hospital, as well as his mounting alienation, is a stirring portrait of both grief and the power of mental health support. Why did you choose to capture this side of grief?
I went through a difficult ten-year divorce and a number of deaths in my family brought on by terminal illnesses. In addition to failed in-vitros and a miscarriage. Eventually my doctor admitted me to the medical psych ward for major depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder, PTSD, and chronic migraines. That sounds melodramatic! But it was a defining experience in my life. I was so surprised to find that many of my fellow patients were also experiencing depression after having been T-boned by circumstance. They came from all walks of life—from students to engineers to professional musicians. There is comfort in knowing that you’re not crazy for feeling crazy and that we are not alone. I was so grateful for the help of doctors, therapists, occupational therapists, and even art therapists and therapy animals.
Where did the inspiration for Rudy’s occupation come from? Do you often search out department-store pianists?
No, I don’t search them out, but I enjoy them. As a writer, I always wonder about people and their occupations and lives. I wonder about museum guards, department-store pianists, pharmacists. What’s it like to do that job? How did they get those special skills? Do they have bigger dreams? What do they do at home? Writing is so solitary and you sort of get sick of yourself! And interested in others. Also, I think this comes from working as a journalist. I’m always interested in others’ stories.
Which character do you identify the most with and why? Or do you have a favorite character or one who was your favorite to capture on the page?
I love Sasha. I love the idea of seeing America through an immigrant’s eyes. The San Francisco Bay Area has residents from all over the world. It makes it a vital, interesting place to live—it’s nice (and important) to hear the stories and experiences of those from other countries and about their cultures. I can relate to Rudy, too—to his frustration with grief: JUST NO, EFF THIS!
Did anything surprise you while writing of the novel? Did the storyline remain the same throughout the process of writing or during editing? If not, what changed and why do you think it did?
Bethany came to the fore as a character that needed to be on the page in her own voice. In a good marriage I feel like we can help each other lighten up a little and look at the big picture. It’s great having that dialogue, whether it’s about your job or children. I wanted to show their relationship and their mutual awe and perplexity for their daughter, CeCe. As I wrote Bethany’s backstory for Rudy’s flashbacks, she started to have her own scenes that became short chapters. I wanted the reader to see Rudy and their marriage from her point of view. And to see her coworker, who becomes a suspect in her death. I liked the idea of having flashback scenes from a dead character’s point of view. It gives the readers their own overview of the story. I feel that in the best books the reader always knows a bit more than the characters do.
Why set the novel in California? What was important about placing these characters in the Golden State?
I’ve lived in the Bay Area for about twenty years and I love its diversity—from the population to the topography, the Bay Area has a bit of everything. And the tech industry and high cost of living make it a roller coaster of a place to live. People weather highs and lows that are unique to the area.
Even if Rudy’s work playing piano began as temporary, it becomes a vital part of his day-to-day existence following Bethany’s death, and he clearly loves music. Do you have a similar love for piano or classical music? Do you play an instrument, or was his passion inspired by someone in your life?
I did play the piano as a kid. But, like Sasha, I veered away from Bartók toward Elton John (and I wanted to be David Bowie), and thus was a poor piano student. And dang if I don’t wish now I’d kept up with my lessons. I have a friend who teaches piano, and she incorporates modern music into the lessons. I’ll bet this helps kids stick with it! As a writer, I was inspired by department store pianists and that dang PA lady at Nordstrom. Who is she? Where does she live? Is she real or automated? I can imagine that if you worked there hour after hour, day in and day out, she might start to get to you in one way or another. For Rudy, she seeps into his mind as a manifestation of grief. As a shopper, I always thought it would be funny if she just started making random two-word pages: “Chocolate pudding, chocolate pudding.”
In your previous novel Good Grief, a widow was a main character, and now one of your key characters is a widower. What was different about writing from a man’s perspective?
In my second book, Happiness Sold Separately, one of the main characters is a man and the story is told in part from his point of view. I really worked at making him sympathetic. When I first fell in love with literature, it didn’t matter to me if the character was male or female—I loved the main male character in The Moviegoer. I also loved Flannery O’Connor’s male characters. As an English major, I decided it didn’t matter if the characters were male or female—it was their universal experiences that resonated with me. Also, my parents were divorced and I grew up with my dad and had three older brothers. When your brothers are shooting their BB guns at squirrels out the second-story window, smashing caps on the fireplace hearth, and breaking bottles behind the garage for kicks, a bit of boy is imprinted on your brain. But I have to say that the guys in my writers’ group really, really helped me. Saved me. They would point out little details and say, “Oh, a guy would never do that.” Having male readers along the way always helped.
This isn’t the first time you’ve written from the perspective of a grieving spouse, and you capture the absurdity of heartbreak so vividly that readers might wonder if you’ve undergone a similar loss. Did you have to do much research into grieving? Where did you find material and inspiration for illustrating this inimitable experience?
Well, I can’t seem to shake grief in my life. My dad died of cancer when I was twenty-eight; my mom of a brain tumor when I was thirty-three. One of my brothers was drowned. My closest sister-in-law, who was like an older sister to me, died of breast cancer when she was only forty-seven. While I was working on this book my closest auntie died of ALS, and my cousin, a year younger than me, died of breast cancer. Every time my family gets together it seems we’re spreading ashes! But my brothers are so funny that there is always some dark humor involved—maybe it’s a defense mechanism. And that’s part of the lunacy of grief. I’ve learned that grief is a universal experience—especially during and after the terminal illness of a loved one. Grief is odd in that it’s delayed: There’s the numb taking-care-of-business you go through first. And then there are periods during which it makes you plain crazy. While writing Good Grief, I did read Dr. Joyce Brothers lovely book on grief written after she lost her husband. And Joan Didion’s gorgeous book The Year of Magical Thinking later. Also, for me, infertility, a late miscarriage, the inability to have children, then divorce, was a great source of grief. Ultimately, I think the experience of grief is so universal that we can apply it to characters who’ve lost other family members in their lives—such as Rudy losing his wife, Bethany.
This is your third novel, on top of your work as a journalist and short-story writer. What advice do you have for any aspiring novelists?
Oh, boy. It isn’t easy, is it? I think the number one thing is to just show up. Whether you feel like it or not, show up and write for a limited time. Set an egg timer or alarm and give yourself a limit for how long you’ll write for. It’s easier to write for a limited amount of time than to think you need to lock yourself in a room for an entire day or weekend and pump out War and Peace. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott gives the life-saving advice of committing to short assignments and shitty first drafts. So obvious, but there you have the three shs, which can become a mantra: show up, short assignments, shitty first drafts. It always helps to have a little assignment for yourself before you dive in: “I’m just going to write about George visiting Lucy at the store where she works and what it sounds and smells like, what he’s apprehensive about, what he’s excited about, and what her reaction to seeing him there is.” If you can’t come up with a short assignment for yourself, you can search the internet for writing prompts. They might seem silly, but they can evolve into a story. Also, you can make your assignment rewriting and go over what you wrote yesterday and one, make sure the five senses are included; two, make the nouns more specific; and three, make the verbs more interesting. I think fiction writing can be the most difficult, as it is the most open-ended. Feature stories and essays have a template that I can hold in my mind as I’m working. A novel is bigger and more unwieldy. Also, fiction allows room for so many possibilities and you feel like you want to choose just the right direction and tone. To me, the first most important thing to develop for a story or novel is the story’s voice. And that voice comes from a character. To me, all the best novels and short stories (and even TV shows—we live in a TV renaissance!) are character-driven.
If Me for You were adapted into a film, who would you want to play each character? Do you have individuals in mind when you’re picturing the main characters?
I don’t. I love so many actors and actresses. Honestly, I’d be grateful for anyone who took the time to read the story and took an interest. I’d be delighted just for it to be optioned.
What do you hope people will take away from the novel? What’s the lesson you hope they’ll carry from it?
You’re not alone, and you’re not crazy. I feel that’s what we all need to hear, and that the best books put forth some sort of universal theme that tells us that. Whether you’re single, living alone, widowed, dumped, divorced, ill, disabled, grieving, an immigrant, or feeling like an outsider—you’re not alone and you’re not crazy.
Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?
I’m noodling my way into a new story expanding on divorce and my few trips to the loony bin. But in a funny, poignant way. Think . . . Maria Bamford! (I love her.)