Even the smartest people can be stupid at love.
When Stacey Lane writes a feminist take on Frankenstein, she never imagines it will catch the eye of unbelievably sexy Hollywood star Tommy DeMarco. Tommy’s passion for her book—and for her, a recently widowed poet, mom, and certified mess—threatens to turn her life upside down, or maybe right-side up. From their first poolside meeting the two are set on a collision course as they go about making the book into a movie, making each other crazy, and making love, if only in secret. Fueled by desire, love, grief, expertly poured cocktails, and crackling dialogue, Monsters: A Love Story is a witty portrait of a relationship gone off the rails and two people who are made for each other—even if they’re not so sure they see it that way.
**A Summer Beach Read Pick for Harper’s Bazaar, the Associated Press, Purewow, and Refinery29**
“This fast-paced novel will have readers immersed in the heady feeling of an alcohol-fueled affair with one of the sexiest men alive.” —
“An addictive page-turner, ripe with seduction and charm, that drops insights into this messy, crazy, wonderful thing called love.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
“Entertainingly dyspeptic.” —Vogue
“A perfectly imperfect love story.”—Bookpage
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
THE PHONE RINGS. The landline. I hate the landline. In the weeks after Michael died, it was constantly ringing--the sympathetic neighbors, the PTA moms, everyone wanting to know how I was doing. You don't need to know how I'm doing, I'd think. Michael died eight months ago, so it doesn't ring that much anymore. I guess I'm still not doing well.
"Stacey," the voice sings into the machine, "pick up your goddamn phone . . ." It's my sister, Jenny.
"Hang on," I say as I pick up. I hold the phone away from my mouth and call down into the basement. "Time to brush teeth, boys. Get ready for bed."
"You guys want to come here on Friday? We can stream a movie, make milkshakes?"
We've spent almost every weekend at her house. The boys are probably expecting it, but I'm starting to feel trapped. Michael was so big on routine, and now I feel like I've fallen into another one. Some times I just want to wing it. I don't know how to tell her that.
"I don't know," I say. "We should let you guys get back to your own lives. I mean, we'll be fine."
"No, we love having you!"
I know she means it. She was born to mother--her own kids, me, the boys. This past year, she's been amazing, and I know in some ways she loves it. Being so necessary.
I wander back into the living room and sit down in front of my lap top. I got it out earlier to look at job postings, but with my background an advanced degree, two published books of poetry, and no real work experience--it's discouraging how little I'm qualified for. I could be a barista maybe.
Jenny keeps talking, but I'm not really listening. I'm checking my Facebook, my e-mail. I have a separate account that comes in from my author's website, but I haven't been paying attention to it. I haven't been writing anyway, and besides, it rarely has anything in it. But today, there's something there. The subject line reads, Interested in your book, so I open it. The note is short.
"Listen to this," I say, interrupting my sister, and I read her the e-mail. Dear Ms. Lane, I just had the pleasure of reading your novel-in-verse, Monsters in the Afterlife. I'm wondering if you have an agent who represents you. I'd be interested in discussing the film rights.
"Seriously? That's so cool! Who's it from?"
''Alan something-or-other. Probably some nobody," I say, but I'm already plugging the name into Google. "Is this the same guy? Holy shit." The list of credits is long. Really long, and I recognize a lot of it. "Oh my god. What do I say? I don't have an agent."
"Then answer, 'Thank you, that sounds amazing, but no, I don't have an agent because there's no money in poetry.'"
It's true. My first book, The Seduction Of Eve, came out with a tiny press, but the reviews were good and it sold close to six hundred copies, which for poetry is really not bad at all. It wasn't a novel-in-verse like Monsters, but it was thematic, and each section opened and closed with poems titled "The Seduction" that retold this one moment, but the perspectives, the voices kept changing. Some of them were really beautiful, like love poems, but in others the language turned dangerous, dark. The day the box came with the first copies of the book, I just sat on the floor and read it cover to cover, like it was something new, like it wasn't even mine.
"Wow," Michael had said when he'd come home. "Congratulations." And he picked up a copy and flipped through it, not to read it, just to see if it was real.
"One more chapter?" Stevie begs.
I look at the clock. It's late, past their bedtime by ten minutes, but I say yes anyway. I like reading to them. I feel like I can fall into the book, and then I'm giving them what they want, but I don't have to think. I don't have to find my own words. When the story's over, I kiss Stevie first, leaning into the bottom bunk to tuck him in. "Give me a squeeze," I say, and he does, his little arms tight around my neck. "Who's my favorite monkey?" I say, and he squeaks, "Me!"
I step on the rail and pull myself up to kiss Ben. I smooth his Hulk blanket across him, ruffle his hair. "Thanks for being my kid," I whisper, and he smiles. "Thanks for being my mom."
We do this every night. Every touch, every word the same. I love the ritual of it, the few minutes when I feel like I'm my best self. I feel like I'm getting it right. I flip off the lights and stand in the hallway outside their door, leaning against the wall, listening to them talk. Some part of me is always expecting to overhear something painful or profound, to hear them talk about Michael or me. Most nights, they don't. Tonight Stevie is talking about Spider-Man, imagining new powers he thinks would be better, what if he could fly, what if he could be invisible too?
"Invisible all the time?" Ben asks. "Or just when he wants to be?"
I walk down the hall to my bedroom, and Bear pads along behind me. He curls up on the big fleece mat in the corner of the room. It's funny to think he's as settled as ever. It's the boys and I who are floundering. Just in different ways. They want nothing more to change, and I want everything to.
Last week while the boys were at school, I packed up all of Michael's things. It seemed pointless to keep hanging on to it all, the T-shirts, the electric razor. I went to a grief session once, in the very beginning, but one of the other women was talking about how she couldn't wash her husband's clothes, how she held on to the smell of him. Some days, she said, she spent hours on the floor of their closet, trying to breathe him in, and I thought, I shouldn't be here, this isn't for me.
I packed one box for each boy using old pictures. Here is the tie your father wore for your christening. Here is a T-shirt he was wearing one day at the park. In the photo, he's pushing you on the swing. Here is a wallet, a watch. I didn't know what to do with his wedding ring, so I just put it in a velvet jewelry box with mine.
The upshot is that now I have all this empty space to fill. I tried spreading my clothes between both dressers, but I couldn't find the right balance. Everything feels disordered. I can never find what I want.
I walk down to the kitchen and pour myself a glass of wine. At first I'd felt weird about drinking alone, but I have a rule about stopping at one glass, so I think it's okay. I do use my biggest glasses and I pour them pretty full, but I always stop after one.
Michael and I met in Boston, in graduate school. He was studying actuary science. I was studying poetry. He had a job lined up months before graduation, and when he proposed, he said, Marry me, Stacey. God knows you can't afford not to. Then he laughed. We both did. We were really young then, and happy.
We moved to Omaha right out of grad school, the year we got married. It's where Michael grew up--flyover, landlocked, just about as far as you can get from either coast, which is where I'd always lived--Boston, and before that San Francisco. First one coast and then the other, and now I'm right in the center. I don't feel very centered. I used to. I don't anymore.
I take the wine out to the living room and sit on the couch. My laptop is still sitting open, but the screen's black, timed out. You realize your book could end up a movie? Jenny had said before we hung up. I wonder what they'll pay you. In my best year, just last year, I made three thousand dollars. Look at you, Michael said. I think he thought it was cute.
He did risk calculation for an asset-management firm. It's not really risk if you understand math, he used to say, but I don't understand math, not even a little, so he told me not to even look at the numbers when we bought our first house. It was this sweet little bungalow in Midtown with wood accents and dormers. Michael didn't love it, but he liked the commute, and he liked that I liked the built-in bookshelves next to the fireplace.
"It's close to the university," he said. "Maybe you could teach."
"I don't think we can afford this," I said, running my hand along the dark wood of the shelves.
"Maybe we should rent."
"Maybe you should trust me," he said.
There were not any jobs at the university. There never are, but for a while I did part-time development for an arts nonprofit. I wrote some grants and sat in on a few board meetings, but it didn't pay much and I wasn't very good at it. When Ben was born, Michael said I should just stay home.
I'd walk Ben in the stroller for blocks and blocks through Happy Hollow and Dundee with all the big brick Tudors and overgrown lawns and one-way streets. We'd stop at this cute little corner market and I'd buy Ben grapes most afternoons. Plums when he got a little older. Some nights we'd walk down to this offbeat vegetarian place, though Michael liked to tease me that if I was going to be a Nebraskan, I was going to have to learn to eat steak. I wasn't sure, really, how I felt about Nebraska, but I loved Midtown.
"We need a bigger house," I told Michael after Stevie was born, and what I meant was a big brick Tudor with ivy. But all he saw were the detached garages and the radiators and the retrofit piping for central air-conditioning.
So he bought this house, or rather it just fell into his lap, a corporate relocation deal that he couldn't pass up on.
"I don't want to live out west," I said.
"It's closer to my parents."
"I hate your parents." But he convinced me.
So we moved west. All the way west, past the cornfields at Boys Town, away from the narrow streets to the part of town that's all pedestrian malls and golf courses. We have a three-car garage and a lawn service. We have a monitored security system and a stacked slate fountain by the front walk. We don't have any ivy.
Not that any of that matters now. Michael set everything up years ago, so you won't have to make any decisions, he'd said. And there had been all these papers for me to sign. I just remember him saying, Life insurance ... trust account ... annuity.
I know I should be grateful. It's probably for the best. I'm not all that good at decisions, and a job is a long shot. Still, it would be nice to have some direction.
According to the boys, Jenny's husband makes the world's greatest milkshakes. I wouldn't know. I've never tried one, though he's made them a million times. Todd is this big, burly guy who can't go five minutes without offering you a snack or a beer, the ex-football player type you see a lot of in Nebraska, though he is not Nebraskan. Jenny and I have known him since we were kids. They moved here so our kids could be cousins like the kind we never had, Jenny said. But I think Todd fell in love with the lawns mostly. We didn't have lawns this big in San Francisco. The kids are close though. Jenny has three, two girls around the same ages as my boys, and then her littlest, a boy still in preschool.
Jenny jostles the pot on her stove, waiting for the popcorn to pop. Todd's in the great room, fixing the surround sound.
"No, the other remote," I hear Todd say for the third time.
Jenny wrinkles her nose. I turn away from her, move to look out the window. It's late enough that the sky is a heavy gray.
"So speaking of movies, this thing with your book sounds insane. I mean good insane. But, you know, crazy."
Behind me the kernels start to pop, clinging loudly against the metal of the pan. There's the sound of the heavy pot dragging across the grate of the stove as she shakes it and shakes it, then the rustle of her pouring the finished popcorn into a bowl. The bowl is the color of butter and it reads Popcorn in big white letters. I have a matching bowl, but I don't ever use it.
"Can you imagine what Michael would say? I mean, he would be like, 'This is insane.'"
"Wow. It's like you're channeling him." I lean closer to the window, peering out. "I think we're in for more snow."
"You know, refusing to talk about him is never going to make this any easier," she says.
"Well, with you around, how will we ever find out?" I turn around and she's scowling, one hand on her hip. "I'm kidding," I say, but she doesn't soften at all. "You're right," I say. "He'd be thrilled."
I'm making dinner late again because I haven't been paying attention to the clock. Stevie had finally asked for a snack and I said, You've already had one, and he said, Yeah, but I'm hungry again, and when I looked up it was already seven o'clock. Lately, I've been doing this a lot. I cradle the phone against my ear while I heat tomato soup. Ben doesn't really like it, but Stevie does, and it's the fastest thing I can do. It's almost their bedtime.
"I don't really understand all of this, Mom," I say. "They're buying a six-month option, whatever that means, but they're sending me a check for fifteen grand and flying me out to work on the script." I don't really need the money, but I like the thought of making it. And more important, they're flying me somewhere. More important, I get to leave.
"Jenny says this producer seems like a big deal," she says. "Maybe you'll get into screenwriting and move out to L.A. and we'll actually see you once in a while."
"You're seeing us for Christmas. We'll be there in a month."
"You know what I mean. I don't know why you don't just move home."
"To San Francisco?" I laugh. "Sure. The boys would love it. If we sell the house we could swing an efficiency apartment over someone's garage."
"That's a little hyperbolic, Stacey." She's using her best professor voice.
"Anyway, Jenny would kill me if we left." They moved out here three years ago when Todd got a job with the railroad. The hours are long, but the benefits are amazing, and the cost of living's so low, Jenny's able to mostly stay home. She used to teach French full-time. Now she gives private lessons.
"I'm just saying this could open some new doors."
"I wouldn't get carried away," I say. "From what I understand, these options almost never pan out. Honestly, Jenny shouldn't have even told you yet."
What People are Saying About This
Witty and so nimbly-worded, Liz Kay's Monsters: A Love Story had me at hello. From the near-madcap improbability of the novel's premise, to the punchy repartee and ping pong banter between Stacey and Tommy, it's impossible to resist the book's charms. But don't be fooled. This is more than a feel-good read. Because the truth is, it's love that is a monster story, no? A tale of unknown creatures and dark circumstances. Like widowhood. Or single parenthood. Or the act of making art or love. Or simple loneliness. Or complicated loneliness. Liz Kay has written a heroine who resists easy explication but who demands our absolute attention. Poets, meet your new patron saint. --Jill Alexander Essbaum, New York Times-bestselling author of Hausfrau
Reading Group Guide
1. Do you think Stacey and Tommy are monsters? Why or why not? Was there a time in your life when you felt like a monster?
2. What was your first reaction to Tommy? Was there a point at which you began to see him differently? If so, when?
3. Stacey’s novel-in-verse is a feminist reimagining of Frankenstein. How else does feminism play into the novel? Do you think Stacey is a feminist?
4. Stacey often feels that she’s not enough for her sons, while Tommy admits that he often feels like he’s in a scene in which he “play[s] a good father” (p. 42). Do you think Stacey and Tommy are bad parents? Why or why not?
5. How does Stacey deal with her grief over the death of her husband? In what ways does this grief shape her relationship with Tommy? What would have happened if Tommy had fallen in love with Stacey’s poetry while her husband was still alive?
6. How does Stacey grow throughout the novel? Is she happy at the end?
7. Stacey and Sadie both have complicated relationships with food. How does the novel address issues of female body image? Is this different in Omaha from how it is in Hollywood?
8. On p. 36, Tommy says that Monsters in the Afterlife, the film adaptation of Stacey’s novel-in-verse, isn’t about sex, but rather about control. How does the line between desire and control shift throughout the novel?
9. Discuss Tommy and Phillip as two very different suitors for Stacey. What does each man bring out in her? Which would you pick?
10. While quick-paced, romantic, and often humorous, the novel tackles some heavy themes: infidelity, parenthood, grief, feminism. Ultimately, did you relate to Stacey? To Tommy? Why or why not? Did the novel make you feel differently about decisions you’ve made in your own life?