The Celebrants (A Read with Jenna Pick)

The Celebrants (A Read with Jenna Pick)

by Steven Rowley
The Celebrants (A Read with Jenna Pick)

The Celebrants (A Read with Jenna Pick)

by Steven Rowley



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New York Times Bestseller
A TODAY Show #ReadWithJenna Book Club Pick

A Big Chill for our times, celebrating decades-long friendships and promises—especially to ourselves—by the bestselling and beloved author of The Guncle.

It’s been a minute—or five years—since Jordan Vargas last saw his college friends, and twenty-eight years since their graduation from Berkeley when their adult lives officially began. Now Jordan, Jordy, Naomi, Craig, and Marielle find themselves at the brink of a new decade, with all the responsibilities of adulthood, yet no closer to having their lives figured out. Though not for a lack of trying. Over the years they’ve reunited in Big Sur to honor a decades-old pact to throw each other living “funerals,” celebrations to remind themselves that life is worth living—that their lives mean something, to one another if not to themselves.

But this reunion is different. They’re not gathered as they were to bolster Marielle as her marriage crumbled, to lift Naomi after her parents died, or to intervene when Craig pleaded guilty to art fraud. This time, Jordan is sitting on a secret that will upend their pact.

A deeply honest tribute to the growing pains of selfhood and the people who keep us going, coupled with Steven Rowley’s signature humor and heart, The Celebrants is a moving tale about the false invincibility of youth and the beautiful ways in which friendship helps us celebrate our lives, even amid the deepest challenges of living.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593540442
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/30/2023
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: eBook
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 10,144
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

About The Author
Steven Rowley is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels: Lily and the Octopus, a Washington Post Notable Book; The Editor, an NPR Best Book of the Year; The Guncle, winner of the twenty-second Thurber Prize for American Humor and Goodreads Choice Awards finalist for Novel of the Year; and The Celebrants, a TODAY Show Read With Jenna book club pick. His fiction has been translated into twenty languages. He resides in Palm Springs, California.

Read an Excerpt


(Jordan, 2023)

He was an astronaut, he imagined, like in one of those movies; his mission took him to a distant planet on the far reaches of the solar system, Saturn, perhaps, or Neptune. He was gone a nominal amount of time-three years, maybe five, significant but not interminable-but somehow everyone Jordan Vargas knew on Earth had aged a lifetime while he was in space. Naomi with her readers, struggling to figure out the television's remote as if the technology had eluded her, her irritated face twisted in frustration. Craig in the kitchen employing the flashlight on his phone to read take-out menus, muttering the whole time about the Big Sur retreat's soft ambient light while confusing yellow curry with green. What was the difference? The color, yes, obviously. But one had more turmeric. What the hell color is turmeric? Marielle educating them in great detail about the kittens she'd brought for the weekend. They were born without eyes, a condition called microphthalmia, she explained, caused by a genetic mutation that can sometimes result in smaller-than-usual tongues. And Jordan Tosic, loyal Jordy, his husband and other half, the man who made them the Jordans to so many. (Should we invite the Jordans? You don't know the Jordans?! We love the Jordans!) Jordy's metamorphosis, like Jordan's own, was less shocking, as they'd been together since college and had witnessed each other aging slowly, each having had ample time to adjust to the other's weathering like the wearing of a beloved chair's upholstery over time.

Of course Jordan Vargas wasn't an astronaut, or anything close to it. He was a public relations executive, bound to Earth by gravity, a mortgage, a business he owned with his husband, and aging immigrant parents who moved the family from Bogotá when Jordan was eight to give him and his brother a better life. He was someone who vibrated not from sitting above liquid-fueled cryogenic rocket engines aboard a shuttle ready to launch, but with the genuine thrill of securing his clients ample media coverage. Or at least he used to, until slowly over the years he came to resent both the clickbaitification of journalism and the troublesome clients whom he saw more as crises than people. And it wasn't space travel that kept him away from these friends, a dangerous mission (as poetic as it might be to imagine), so much as his own busy life and the sad fact that friends-even best friends of thirty years-drift apart.

Jordan was growing impatient with Craig's inability to read a simple take-out menu. They were only in Big Sur for the long weekend; their time together, as always, was limited. He rolled up one of Mr. Ito's old National Geographic magazines stuffed in a rack next to him and, from the recliner where he sat, swatted the coffee table. "Jesus, Craig. How old are you?"

Craig sighed his displeasure.

Naomi peered over her glasses. "Don't do that to my father's magazines."

Cowed, Jordan rolled the publication the opposite way to flatten it. "Will someone help Nana with the menu? I'm famished."

"I just need to turn on some lights." Craig ran his hand against the dated backsplash in search of a light switch, managing only to trigger the garbage disposal instead.

"I told you. All the lights are already on." Naomi strained to open the remote, but the plastic latch was stuck. Her mother would use a dime to open battery compartments, but no one carried coins anymore.

"I'll help," Marielle offered. "My eyes are still young." She was also the youngest by a year, having skipped a grade somewhere, the only one of them yet to turn fifty. Her hair was untamed, an ashen blond with streaks of gray, and only a delicate whisper now of its former red. Of the five of them, she had updated her style the least, and she looked much like the lone female member of a once-popular folk trio-all she was missing was a tambourine.

"There's nothing wrong with my eyes. It's the light," Craig groused.
"It's not the light," Naomi insisted.
Jordy chuckled. "Unlike the cats."

"There's nothing wrong with their eyes," Marielle admonished, fussing over the laundry basket at her feet she'd requisitioned to make the kittens a nest. "It's just they don't have any."

Jordan looked up at Craig. "Toss me your phone."

"I only have one bar." The cell reception at the house was almost nonexistent.

"I didn't ask you how many bars you had, I said toss me your damn phone!"

Marielle, in a sincere yet comical overreaction, jumped in front of the kittens to act as a human shield and everyone laughed.

Naomi Ito, Craig Scheffler, Marielle Holland, Jordy Tosic, Jordan Vargas. They were mostly nineteen the night they met; it seemed like just moments ago. They, along with Alec Swigert, were transfer students to Berkeley who shared a dormitory floor, graduating with the Class of 1995 (except for Alec, who didn't live long enough to collect his degree).

Jordan tapped the back of his husband's hand and pointed to his own phone on the charger, thinking he had a better chance of placing a take-out order online, even with one bar of service, than Craig ever did of deciphering a printed menu. Jordy reached for the phone and Jordan could still see in his six-foot-four frame the young athlete he fell for in school. They jumped at the sound of three rapid raps, Naomi banging the remote on an end table; the table lamp's shade went askew. Naomi looked up to everyone's scorn. "What! Craig's eyes are weak, not his heart."

"We have a dog with a weak heart at the rescue, stage five murmur, a Basset," Marielle offered as she sat in the recliner, placing the kittens on her lap. She tucked her legs underneath her so that they disappeared entirely under her dress. "He made friends with a deaf Malinois. They're so cute, the two of them, so we're trying to place them together." Several years back Marielle had left her life in D.C. to open an animal rescue in Boring, Oregon. ("That's not a commentary on Oregon," she had repeated several times, as if obligated to do so by the Beaver State's chamber of commerce. "That's literally the name of the town.")

Craig peered up from the menu, raising his phone in the process and blinding Jordy with his flashlight. "Do you guys even want Thai? We could also just order pizza."

Naomi finally had the remote open. "These batteries are corroded. I think my mother kept replacements upstairs." She had maintained the Big Sur house as a shrine to her parents years after they died.

"What about sushi?" Jordy suggested, still rubbing the light from his eyes.

"Surprise, surprise. The Jordans want sushi."

"I'm Switzerland," Jordan insisted.

"I stand corrected. Tosic wants sushi, Vargas wants . . . Fondue."

"No sushi. I'm vegetarian," Marielle reminded them.

In unison, they shouted, "WE KNOW!"

Naomi headed for the stairs and Marielle followed, as if she'd been dying to get her alone.

As much as they had all aged, the house in Big Sur seemed revived, its retro style that felt so dated twenty-eight years ago when they assembled here the night Alec was buried was once again in architectural vogue. The house sat high above the water, built over a cliff between a grove of trees and craggy rocks overlooking the ocean. It was all wood paneling and glass to make the most of the breathtaking views, the whole place a paean to the American midcentury and its minimalist aesthetic. While much of the house was a single story on stilts that jutted out over the water, there was a small second story built over the back end of the house by the driveway. There were clean lines throughout; in fact the stairwell to the small upper bedrooms didn't even have a banister. In an unfortunate pun, the house was named Sur la Vie.

When the guys were alone Craig pointed to Jordy's tee. "You haven't bought a new shirt in thirty years?"

Jordy glanced down to see BERKELEY written in blue. "Jordan got me this for my fiftieth when I started swimming again." Jordy's doctor had told him running was taking a toll on his knees, and his Chelsea Piers health club had a pool. "I set a goal of doing the 20 Bridges Swim around Manhattan."

Craig recoiled. "You would swim in the East River?"

"It's actually the cleanest it's been in years."

"Mount Saint Helens is the most dormant it's been in years. I wouldn't lower myself in the crater."

Jordan studied a painting that hung just shy of level on the living room wall. He remembered the seascape from their first visit to Big Sur after Alec died; he hated it then, it was a shade too bright and too cheery for both their mood and the sea, but he had a certain fondness for it now that he saw the world as a darker place and welcomed a smattering of light. "You know, I think this is an actual Rembrandt."

"Funny," Craig said, obviously not amused.

"No, I'm serious, Nana. Maybe you can confirm." Nana was a nickname Craig earned in college by wearing nightshirts and falling asleep before nine.

A commotion drew their eyes up to the landing; Marielle and Naomi reappeared at the top of the stairs.

"It's true!" Marielle said, in the midst of a tense conversation. "For the last year or so at least I've been feeling like my own worst enemy." She turned to look at Naomi, expecting perhaps the sympathetic nod of female companionship.

"Is that so." Naomi clutched a package of likely expired AAAs.

Marielle nodded.

"Because I'm literally going to push you down these stairs if you don't move any faster." With her glasses and the gray in her hair, Naomi looked not unlike her late mother, and she had an inscrutable demeanor to match.

"OH MY GOD!" Marielle shrieked, grabbing Naomi's hand. "Is that a ring?" She studied the double gold band with an oval green stone.

Naomi snatched her hand back and headed down the stairs, Marielle in hot pursuit. "Let's not make a big deal of it."

"Does this mean you and...?"

"I said, let's not make a big deal!"

"But it's jade." Where romance was concerned, Marielle was one for tradition.

"It's an inside joke." Naomi wanted off the subject as quickly as possible.

"I don't get it."

"That's because you're not on the inside." She knew her friends. There was no weaseling out of an explanation with such intense focus on her. "Jade is supposed to cure . . . I don't know, kidney ailments or something. Gary says I'm a pain in his side, but he wants to marry me anyway."

"Romantic," Jordy offered.

Naomi wasn't about to take relationship advice from the Jordans, who never had to endure modern dating. To her it was the perfect proposal.
Marielle's face lit up. "We have to celebrate!"
Jordy interjected, "We are celebrating. We're celebrating Jordan."
Naomi buried her face in her hands. "You know, I was with Fleetwood Mac when you called."
"The Fleetwood Mac?" Marielle asked.

"No, Fleetwood Mac and Cheese, a lounge act in Reno. Yes, the Fleetwood Mac." Naomi, an executive for the band's music label, had been sent out to check on the surviving members on tour.

Craig emerged from the kitchen. "So, Jordan. Are you going to tell us why you assembled us here?"

Jordan pretended to be immersed in his phone as Naomi slipped the new batteries into the remote. "Don't you think we're getting a little old for the pact?"

Marielle chastised Naomi. "You only say that because you had your funeral already."

"As did you, if I recall," Naomi said. "As have we all."

"Actually, I haven't," Jordy said, and all eyes turned toward him. "I haven't!" he stressed.

"Oh, sweet Jordy." Naomi dropped her head to feign sorrow. "Always a pallbearer, never a corpse."

Craig gathered the stack of menus. "I'm taking these outdoors where I can read them under the floodlights you use to scare the raccoons. No one follow me."

"No one is," Jordan clarified, but Craig was already gone.

"Should we tell him the floodlights are there to scare away mountain lions and not raccoons?" The batteries now secure, Naomi turned the television on to a rerun of The People Upstairs, keeping the volume on mute. The warm glow of the TV helped everything feel so familiar.

"I used to love this show," Jordy said.

Craig burst back inside.

Jordan looked up. "Mountain lion?"

Craig recoiled. Mountain lion? "No. There's a putrid smell out there."

"Those are trees. It's called nature," Naomi clarified.

Craig, who still lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan near the gallery where he once worked, replied, "That's not it. It smells like mulch."

"WHAT DO YOU THINK MULCH IS?" Naomi made exasperated gestures with both of her arms to emphasize all the bark and wood that surrounded them.

Marielle checked on the kittens, then flopped on the couch, kicking one leg over the armrest. She turned to the Jordans. "You two should adopt my dogs. The Basset and the Malinois."

Jordy shot his husband a panicked look. They had just arrived at the cabin, hadn't even ordered food. Were they going to get into their news before a second bottle of wine? "It's not a good time."

"It's never a good time. That's just an excuse. You just do it because there are so many in need." To Marielle it was like having children. If she had waited for the right time, she never would have had Mia, and she loved her daughter (despite her complicated feelings for Mia's father).

Jordy scrambled for an excuse. "We live in the city. In an apartment. There's no room for a large dog."

"Oooooh," Marielle cooed, not ceding an inch. "I know four bonded Maltipoos." She said it in a boastful way, the way one might announce they knew Michelle Obama.

"FOUR!" Craig exclaimed.

"I'm not talking to you! I'm talking to the Jordans."

"Look at their faces! Tosic is apoplectic!"

Marielle sat up, put her hands on her hips, and said, "Aren't you supposed to be in prison?"

Craig frowned. He had been granted early release but wasn't quite ready for jokes.

If Jordan squinted he could still see them as they were when they were twenty-two, the night they first came to Sur la Vie. They listened to music that night, Sarah McLachlan and Sophie B. Hawkins and Shawn Colvin, and the Carpenters for some reason too; he vividly remembered that, as Naomi had made such a fuss. They stood around with a sort of stunned bemusement, the finality of Alec's death yet to sink in. Alec would burst through the door at any moment-they were convinced of it-high on his signature trail mix, a blend of ecstasy, ketamine, and god knows what else (none of them were privy to his recipe-he was like Colonel Sanders that way) and make a grandiose proclamation like no two people have ever met, or that they only existed inside him. The invincibility of youth had been pierced that night, but the air had yet to fully escape. Before that, like most young people, they had all thought they would live forever.

"Someone put on music," Naomi instructed. "It’s like a wake in here."

Jordan said very plainly, "Ha."

"I will!" Marielle volunteered.

"Someone other than Marielle."

Marielle protested, but they all knew exactly why Naomi objected. Marielle liked the highlights, the songs they played on the radio. Naomi detested singles, had spent a life at war with popular music, professing only to like deeper cuts. It was that way now that she worked in the industry, it was that way in college when they were randomly assigned as roommates, as far back as history took them. Naomi arrived with a milk crate of albums, Marielle with a shoebox of cassingles.

When Naomi looked away, Jordan slipped his phone to Marielle and encouraged her to choose. She beamed. Seconds later piano chords unspooled through the speaker; Marielle reached for Jordan’s hand and together they started to dance as Karen Carpenter’s rich voice, thick as cabernet, filled the room.

When I was young, I’d listen to the radio...

He’d teed Marielle up and she’d knocked it out of the park.

"NO! VETO!" Naomi came running to grab Jordan’s phone.

"OVERRIDE!" Jordan laughed.

Naomi exhaled her displeasure. "It’s your funeral," she mumbled, giving up. It had been twenty-eight years, more than half their lives, since they made their pact and that joke was never not a source of amusement.

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