New York Times bestselling author Pamela Redmond delivers a beautifully written novel about three generations of women in New York City and the experiences that shape and connect them to each other.
The Possibility of You weaves together three interlocking stories involving three women dealing with issues of pregnancy and motherhood at key moments in history of the last century: On the brink of the First World War and the dawn of the modern age; as the liberalism of the ’60s and ’70s gave way to Reagan’s 1980s; and during the autumn of Barack Obama’s election. Contemporary heroine Cait, an African-American journalist raised by white adoptive parents, goes on a search for her birth mother inspired by her own unplanned pregnancy. Orphan Billie travels from her hippie upbringing in San Francisco to discover the upscale New York grandmother she never knew existed. And Irish nanny Bridget loses the boy she cares for and loves in the 1916 polio epidemic, only to try and replace him with a child of her own.
Delving into the complex emotions that lie at the heart of unplanned pregnancy, motherhood, and the definition of family, this sweeping inter-generational saga illuminates the struggles of these very different women—and shows how the search for belonging is a connection that remains universal.
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Pamela Redmond is the author of eighteen books, most recently the New York Times bestseller How Not to Act Old, which was optioned to DreamWorks. She is the author of five novels, including Younger and The Man I Should Have Married, and the coauthor of ten bestselling baby name books and the related website NameBerry.com. She is a columnist for Glamour and writes frequently for such publications as The Daily Beast and More magazine among many others.
Read an Excerpt
They were in the woods, hundreds of them—police officers and firefighters and volunteers and dogs and finally, after a week of living with the heartrending story, journalists as well—walking hand in hand in hand in a sweep across the leaf-covered ground, the dense canopy of trees overhead turning black against the darkening August sky.
“Okay, that’s it!” called the police chief. “This is the end for us.”
Everyone froze. Cait felt the dry bony hand of the woman who’d been searching on her right slip away; on her left, Martin held fast. After a moment of stillness, they moved with the rest of the crowd to tighten their circle around the chief.
“We’ve done all we can in these woods,” the chief said. “I thank you for your efforts, but you can go home. I’m turning this case over to the FBI.”
Cait looked in alarm at Martin, already shaking her head, appalled. “I can’t believe he’s giving up.”
“He’s not giving up,” said Martin. “It’s just time to try something different. It’s dark now, it’s . . .”
But she was having trouble listening, the images that had haunted her throughout this increasingly desperate week rising up again: Riley, five but no bigger than a three-year-old, buried beneath the dense carpet of leaves, trapped under a rock, cowering in a cave, mauled by a bear, or caught in a fox trap. She wasn’t ready to give up on him. She couldn’t believe the rest of them were.
“We’ve got to keep looking,” she told Martin. “That little boy, nobody ever cared about him, and now it’s like we don’t care, either.”
Martin tried to gather her close. His shoulder looked so tempting, strong beneath his dark blue T-shirt, its cloth soft as a pillowcase. She could smell the sweat on him from the long day of searching in the late summer heat, but something else, too: the sweet scent of clothing carefully laundered by a wife.
She pulled away, mortified, swiping at her cheeks. “I’m all right.”
“No you’re not.” His hands, large, gentle, were still on her. “What is it?”
They had found each other across the crowded fire hall the night after the story broke: the little boy, son of a meth addict, foster child of a great-aunt who was descending into Alzheimer’s, wandered into the woods and never came out. Cait, visiting her parents in New Jersey for the month of August and going out of her mind with boredom, had volunteered to cover the story for the website where her college friend Sam was editor. Martin, an editor at the Times, had similarly volunteered for the gig, since many of the paper’s reporters were off on vacation and his wife was visiting her own parents at the beach with their kids. She’d wanted a break, he’d told Cait, his soft-looking lips twisting into a frown. Which may not have been a bad thing.
They were two of the tallest people in the room, he notably older than she—late forties, she guessed—with dark hair and a heavy five o’clock shadow and myopic brown eyes blinking behind tortoiseshell glasses. She noticed him first, scribbling notes like a cub reporter, earnest and sweating in his white button-down shirt and chinos, gold wedding ring glinting in the bright overhead lights of the country hall.
Then the fire chief said something inadvertently funny and she’d noticed him—noticed Martin—suppressing a smile as he ducked his head and scribbled faster. She must have been staring at him—must have been smiling, too, because he suddenly looked up, caught her eye, and grinned full out.
They were a pair after that, swapping information on the story, comparing theories on what had happened to Riley, gossiping about their fellow reporters, drinking on side-by-side swiveling stools at the Blind Pig every night, then shuffling next door and saying good night beneath the bare bulb that lit the portico of the motel where they both were staying, he in Room 10, she in 11.
“I’m going to keep looking,” she told him now, pulling free, really believing she was going to head out herself with her little flashlight into the now-dark woods. “Will you help me?”
“You’re not going anywhere,” he said, taking hold of her.
She looked down at his hand, big, pale against her tan arm. She’d spent the whole of the two weeks before coming up here at her parents’ little lake club, the poky place where they’d been going since she was a kid, baking on the dock while her mom sat reading in an Adirondack chair under the dense pines. Cait never burned and her hair, as dark as Martin’s in winter, had bleached the same tawny gold as her skin.
“What if that were your son?” she asked him.
Noah, she remembered. Noah was fourteen, his sister Natalie seventeen, heading to college next year.
“That wouldn’t be my son,” Martin said quietly.
“What if it was me?” she said, and then she broke down for real, pressing her face against his shoulder now, feeling his arms wrap tightly around her, letting herself go, feeling safe in his embrace—so safe, she managed to think, that it was dangerous.
One of his hands moved through her hair, got tangled, then got deliberately more tangled.
“It’s not you,” he said into her ear.
“It could be me,” she told him, pulling back to look at him.
“What do you mean?”
She took a breath but then decided not to say what she’d been preparing to say. “Nothing,” she muttered.
There was Riley in her mind’s eye again, lost, alone, scared, damaged. Why did she, who’d never felt anything but safe and adored, feel that could be her?
Maybe because she was prone to wandering into the woods. Maybe because she felt, now, like she was lost.
“What?” he pressed.
She shook her head. “Nothing. We better go file our stories or everybody’s going to beat us.”
They sat, as usual, facing each other across the long folding table that served as a makeshift desk for the reporters covering the story. They each banged out their last Riley stories on their laptops. She found herself reworking her sentences more than was necessary, going back to her notes again and again in search of a better quote, reining in her pace as surely as if she were riding a horse when she felt herself approaching the final paragraphs. As long as she didn’t finish the story, she felt, he might still be out there, waiting to be found and written about the next day.
Martin finished first, packed up his computer, and sat playing with his phone till she was done. Then they set off, as they had every night, walking down the dark highway toward the motel. The only thing that was different was that tonight they held hands, loosely, noncommittally, but without letting go.
“Feeling better?” he asked her.
“Want to tell me more?”
She took a deep breath and didn’t answer. I want to tell you everything, she thought. I want to know everything. But wasn’t the very fact that he was married, however ambivalently, the very reason she’d let herself develop this kind of crush on him? Because she knew there was no danger of actually having him, of getting too close?
The night was darker than usual, the moon that had lit their search and their walks home all week narrowed to a fiery sliver. And there was something else: no lights emanating from the Blind Pig.
“Shit,” he said, stopping. “If there was ever a night when I needed a beer.”
“I have beer,” she said, tentatively. “Well, not beer, actually. Whisky.”
He laughed. Stood on the shoulder of the moonlit highway and studied her. It felt nice, tipping her head back to meet his gaze. Nice and even more dangerous than heading into the black woods.
“If you have whisky, I have glasses,” he said. “The finest plastic.”
“I have water. The finest tap.”
“I might even have ice,” he said. “Or at least I know where I can get some.”
And then there was that moment, the moment she might have said, “God, but I’m so tired,” and he might have said, “Maybe we can have lunch sometime,” but instead, after they let the silence settle for an extra beat, he leaned toward her and they kissed, his mouth salty with sweat, gritty with dust, hungry against hers.
She’d been traveling light for so long, emotionally as well as literally, giving in to sex only when she was desperate and nonattachment was all but guaranteed, when the man looked as if he could satisfy the body without leaving any imprint on the heart.
But that wasn’t Martin. I could love this man, she thought as they half stumbled, half twirled toward the motel, their kisses harder and more insistent with every clumsy step. I could love him but I won’t. Or I’ll let myself love him tonight and then tomorrow we’ll both leave and I’ll never see him again. He’ll go back to his family and I’ll go off to Addis Ababa or to Manila and I’ll think of calling him every time I’m in New York but I never will.
They forgot the whisky. She paused only long enough to duck into the bathroom and rummage through the big cosmetics case she’d never bothered to unpack at her parents’ place, miraculously finding her old diaphragm in its case. And a twisted tube of jelly last used who knew where or when.
He was waiting for her, stretched out long and lean on top of the sheets, his eyes without the cover of his glasses looking like the most naked thing about him. She lay down beside him, leaving the bedside lamp on. The smell of the woods, of the dead leaves they’d spent the day wading through and the trees that had towered all around them, filled the room and seemed to emanate from his skin. She kissed him lightly, tenderly, without force. The decision had been made and they no longer had to pretend to be swept away by passion.
She’d never had sex with someone as old as he was, and though he looked better to her than the hard-body expats who usually landed in her bed, his skin felt looser on its bones, as if it was beginning to slip away. He looked at her more softly, too, taking his time, turning her away from him and lifting the mass of curly hair so he could kiss the back of her neck.
“I’ve been dreaming of doing that all week,” he told her.
She turned back toward him and kissed him again, more insistently this time. What she’d been dreaming of was climbing on top of him, feeling small against his largeness, vulnerable against his ability to care for her. She wanted something from him beyond his cock, beyond obliteration, something more permanent and harder to define.
It wasn’t until the sex was over and she was still again, dozing on top of him, that he spoke.
“I want to be with you,” he said.
I want to be with you, too, she thought. But no. No.
“The way I feel with you—now but not just now; all week, from that first time you smiled at me—I never feel that way with her.”
She moved away from him so that he slipped out of her.
“Married guys always say that.”
“‘Married guys always . . .’?”
“You’re not the first,” she said shortly, standing up, crossing to her suitcase, getting the whisky.
“I didn’t think . . .”
“Listen,” she said, getting back into bed, switching off the light. “Obviously, there’s something special between us. But you’re going back to Park Slope, and your wife and kids will come home from the beach, and you’ll make up and be together again. And I’ll go to New York and get my next round of assignments and head out on the road.”
She could already imagine it, all the steps, the way it was every year: a few weeks back at her parents’, her mom fighting tears the whole time at the thought of another separation and her dad pretending it was fine, the month in Little Italy at her usual sublet seeing Sam and her other editors, and then the long plane ride, the new city, the next story, the place and people and job unfamiliar and foreign enough that she could forget how foreign she felt herself.
“I want to see you when you’re in New York,” he said.
She unscrewed the cap on top of the whisky bottle, took a long swallow, passed it to him. “No.”
“I’m not a home wrecker.”
To her surprise and his credit, he laughed. “And this isn’t a 1950s B movie. My home is already in shambles.”
“Call me when you’re divorced,” she said. “If you still want me, if I’m still single, then maybe we can talk.”
Tough girl. This was so much easier than the way she’d felt in the woods. So much easier than the way she’d felt kissing him.
“Cait,” he said. “I’m serious.”
He set down the whisky bottle, turned the light back on, took her in his arms.
“You don’t want to be with me. I’m a mess.”
Just agree with me, she thought. Everything will be so much simpler that way. And really, she knew for a fact that love didn’t change anything. She loved her parents and they loved her, too—she’d always been sure of that—but it wasn’t enough to make her want to settle down in their safe suburban town, as her mother might have wished, and be happy going to the mall on Saturday mornings, having dinner together on Sunday nights. She loved her friends, but one rollicking night out every six months was usually enough to sustain her. She even loved the apartment she always sublet in New York, but she’d never had the urge to stay there rather than move through a procession of motel rooms as anonymous and ugly as this one.
“Does that have anything to do with what happened in the woods today?” he asked her.
Did it? She couldn’t now access the feeling she’d had out there, her identification with the child, if that had been it, or the urge to rescue him. Had it been merely exhaustion that made her lose control, or the feelings for Martin she’d been struggling to keep under the surface, or something else, something deeper?
“Cait,” he said. “Tell me. Talk to me.”
She made herself focus on him. His eyes were so steady on her, trusting and trustworthy. She could almost imagine being with him, in the lovely little apartment hidden away in the building behind the building in Little Italy. She imagined him in his glasses, and his soft blue T-shirt and worn jeans, bringing her a sandwich in the captain’s bed raised so high off the floor that you needed to climb a step stool to get into it, folding himself into the bed beside her where they would gaze out at the treetops over the cemetery.
This vision seemed so appealing, so palpable, that she thought for a moment she might really be able to tell him what she’d really felt in the woods today. That Riley might have been her. That she’d been adopted, so soon after birth that it couldn’t possibly have made any difference and by parents who’d never been anything but wonderful, and yet the fact of her adoption had always made her feel completely lost.
Instead, she rested her head on his shoulder and asked, “Do you think Riley’s alive?”
He sighed deeply. “I don’t know. I want to think so. But that’s not the way these things usually turn out.”
“I think he is,” she said, the boy’s small pale face, animated from the countless pictures she’d seen of him, grew vivid in her mind. “I just . . . I don’t know. I think he’s out there, looking for something.”
Martin made a sound, not a laugh, but a bark of surprise. “What would a five-year-old be looking for?”
She slid down so that her cheek was pressed to his chest, her entire world reduced to the thump-thump of his heart. It was so warm down here, so comfortable, so safe-feeling. She remembered herself at five, at seven, even at twelve, standing on the beach holding a shell against her ear, listening to its whoosh, so distant yet so provocative, the faint wind of a faraway land. She’d dig in the sand, down, down, hoping to find clams, gold, China.
“Treasure,” she told Martin. “Adventure. Something all his own.”
She listened to his heart and willed her own to match its pace. How long had it been since she’d felt so satisfied to be exactly where she was? Had she ever felt that way? She had no desire to leave him and move across the planet, across the room, even across the bed. All those years she’d been digging, she thought, and it turned out the treasure was not in the woods, hidden in the dirt, and it was not in China. The treasure was right here beside her and, for at least tonight, it belonged only to her.
© 2012 Pamela Redmond Satran
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Possibility of You includes a note from the author, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with Pamela Redmond. 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.
A Note from Pamela Redmond
I had book clubs in mind when I wrote The Possibility of You. Exploring timeless issues that affect women—women of my generation, of my daughter’s generation, and of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations, too—as well as the way things have changed over the decades made conversations and debates come alive in my head. I longed to hear women talking about those issues, having those conversations, out loud.
If you’re lucky enough to be a member of an intergenerational book club, this novel would be a perfect pick. Alternately, your book club could invite your mothers or daughters (or both), or friends and relatives of different ages, to the meeting at which you discuss this book. The seed of the idea for The Possibility of You involved both my grandmother and my daughter, who never met. After looking up my grandmother’s name on the Ellis Island website and discovering that she’d arrived in 1911, when she was twenty-two years old, I realized she was the same age as my daughter, who had just moved to Paris. Two young women, separated by four generations and nearly a century, both embarking on independent lives in foreign countries and having experiences that, in the end, must have felt very similar.
I suddenly was able to imagine my grandmother as a young woman in a way I never could before. While the reality of her individual life in New York was unknowable—she wouldn’t talk about it, and there was little written about the lives of Irish maids and nannies beyond the most offensive stereotypes—I was able to research the era and create a Bridget who might well have been her.
I, myself, moved to New York in 1976, and while there was no Maude or Bridget in my life, no Jupiter, and no baby, either, I did spend a week at a friend’s grandmother’s apartment on the Upper East Side that felt a lot like the house on Sixty-fourth Street, and I went through a pregnancy scare that left an indelible mark on me.
Of course, young women today have so many more choices, so much more information than my grandmother or mother or I even had when I was in my twenties. And yet, the feelings surrounding those choices, the difficulty of those decisions, has remained much the same.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Why does Cait’s unexpected pregnancy inspire her to search for her birth mother? How does the fact of her own adoption influence her feelings about being pregnant and the possibility of having a child?
2. Motherhood is a central theme in the story. Of the characters that are mothers, whom did you find to be the most empathetic? How about the least? What does it take to make someone a mother—is it a genetic bond? or an emotional one?—and why?
3. How does Cait’s life—emotionally, socially, and economically—compare to Billie’s when she was faced with an unplanned pregnancy more than thirty years earlier? Given Billie’s situation, was her decision to leave her daughter and seek a new life for herself understandable? Why or why not?
4. Describe Bridget’s relationship with Maude, both before and after Floyd’s death. Why do you think Bridget remains with Maude for so many years? How would you define their relationship in one word?
5. The scene in which Cait finally meets Billie is the only one told from both characters’ perspectives. How does having each of their viewpoints enhance the story? During their conversation, what does Cait come to realize about her past and her future? What is her opinion of Billie?
6. In what ways does Cait’s search for her birth mother give her a new understanding about Vern and Sally, her adoptive parents? How does her relationship with Sally, in particular, change over the course of the story?
7. From physical appearances and sexual preferences to upbringings and ambitions, Billie and Jupe appear to embody “nothing but contradictions” (p. 15). What accounts for their close friendship? How does Billie so misjudge their relationship?
8. How does the issue of race play out in the novel? Discuss the scene on pages 163–173 when Jupe joins Billie, Bridget, and Maude for dinner. Afterward, Jupe disagrees with Billie that Bridget is the more racist of the two older women—and that Maude, in fact, was not being “really nice” throughout the evening as Billie believed (p. 173). Whose perception of the situation is more accurate? How so?
9. Discuss the historical aspects of the story, including the suffragist movement and the Heterodoxy Club, birth control restrictions, divorce laws, the attitude toward Irish immigrants, and the polio epidemic. What, if anything, did you learn that surprised you?
10. The Possibility of You spans nearly a hundred years. What were the most dramatic changes from generation to generation in terms of choices and opportunities for women, including those related to marriage and motherhood? What things have remained essentially the same?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Given that family is a prominent theme in The Possibility of You, allow members to invite their mothers, daughters, or other special guests to join the discussion.
2. Have each member research a historical aspect of the book—such as the Comstock Laws, the Heterodoxy Club, the building of the subway tunnel between Manhattan and Brooklyn, the polio epidemic of 1916, or figures like Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and Beatrice Hinkle—and share their findings with the group.
3. Cait and her friend Sam meet up at a “groovy—Sam’s word—cocktail lounge . . . made out to look like a soigné lounge in old Saigon, or maybe Shanghai” (pp. 151–52). To set a similar scene for your book club gathering, converse by candlelight and serve Gin-Gin Mules. Here is a recipe for concocting the ginger-flavored drink: www.epicurious.com/recipes/drink/views/Gin-Gin-Mule-232358.
4. To learn more about Pamela Redmond and her writing, visit www.pamelaredmondsatran.com.
A Conversation with Pamela Redmond
There are two epigraphs in the book, one from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and the other from Kara Walker’s Letter from a Black Girl. What was it about these two passages that resonated with you?
The Philip Roth quote speaks to how unknowable our family histories, the lives of our mothers and grandmothers, are to us from the present. Cait goes looking for the truth about her parentage, and the reader finds out much more about her history and the foundations of her life than she can ever know. We all have that curiosity about a past that can never be fully revealed to us, and we’re all shaped by experiences that we may never discover.
I saw an exhibition of Kara Walker’s art, which I love, early in the process of writing this book. Besides being inspired by how she rewrites African-American and women’s history, I thought the feeling in the quote of two people wrapped up in a hate-love relationship, the way Maude and Bridget in particular are, especially resonated with this book.
What inspired the idea to have a character who searches for her birth mother? Is adoption a subject in which you were previously interested or one you have personal experience with?
Originally, this book was only about Billie and Bridget, and there was no contemporary story, so when I decided to add a present-day character, I needed to give her a compelling reason to dig into the past and that’s how I came up with the adoption story. Then, the more I read about the struggles of adopted adults searching for their identities, the more interesting the subject of adoption became.
While I am not an adoptive or birth parent and was not adopted myself, I’ve had several close friends and family members who’ve had personal experiences with adoption. I have heard their stories and seen their struggles on every side of this issue for years. Even in a happy adoption, as Cait’s was, there are struggles.
Can you share with us the significance of the title The Possibility of You and how it relates to the story?
The Possibility of You connects with all the relationships in the book, from Bridget’s search for the possibilities for her future beyond being a servant, to Billie’s quest for Jupe’s love and for a family, to Cait’s curiosity about her birth mother. The babies of these women exist primarily as possibilities. And, of course, most centrally, to the women in the story as well as to all of us, there is the possibility of who you can become as a person and what you can make of your life.
There is a lot of fascinating information in the novel, from statistics (Frank’s clients searching for birth parents are 90 percent female) to historical snapshots (the mania that gripped the city during the polio epidemic of 1916). What sort of research did you do for the novel? How long did it take you to write it?
I worked on this novel for more than five years and did a tremendous amount of research. I knew from my grandmother’s marriage certificate that she’d gotten pregnant before she was married, a secret that provided the kernel of the book’s drama across the generations. Early on, I visited the American Irish Historical Society on Fifth Avenue, whose gorgeous town house provided the model for the house on Sixty-fourth Street.
I also went to the Ellis Island Library and listened to oral histories of Irish servants who came to New York in the years before World War I. At the New York Historical Society, I discovered a 1916 street atlas that showed something called the Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled, which led me to the polio epidemic. I interviewed a Yale medical history professor, Dr. Naomi Rogers, who’s an expert on the 1916 epidemic, along with an adoption detective, genetic specialists, adopted adults and adoptive parents, and experts on Irish immigration and the early birth control movement.
You’re the author of several baby-naming books, including Beyond Ava and Aiden: The Enlightened Guide to Naming Your Baby. Do you use these resources when selecting character names? Along with Bridget, do any of the character names in The Possibility of You have special significance or meaning?
My first working title for this book was The Bridget. Bridget was my grandmother’s real name and she changed it to Bertha or Bea; I never knew why until I discovered that “the Bridget” was a derogatory term for an Irish maid. Naming characters is different from naming babies in that you’re not starting with a clean slate; when you choose a name, you have some sense of who you want this person to be. I kept changing Billie’s name from Billie to Lily and back again, but once she firmly became Billie, she got a lot tougher than she’d been as Lily.
Reading about real-life figures like Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman, with their actions put into historical context, is pretty powerful. Which women’s rights advocate do you find particularly inspiring? What more can you tell us about psychoanalyst Beatrice Hinkle?
Beatrice Hinkle was fascinating and has been largely forgotten. She was one of the first women psychoanalysts in the United States, she translated Jung into English, and she was an extremely prominent and influential woman of her day. But I was able to find out only little about her until I gained access to a secret library in New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where they have her papers: astounding. But while Hinkle is amazing to me, Margaret Sanger is the women’s rights advocate I find most inspiring. She went against the law and conventions to help poor women gain the right to birth control that wealthy women enjoyed via private doctors.
A memorable moment in the novel takes places when Billie is in a nightclub and speaks with a woman who had given up her own baby for adoption. That woman turns out to be Patti Smith. How did you discover this fact, and why did you work it into the story? Are you a fan of Patti Smith’s music?
I am a huge Patti Smith fan—her rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Changing of the Guard” is my absolute favorite song—and I was inspired to add this very late in revisions after reading her wonderful book, Just Kids. She wrote so honestly and movingly about giving up her child for adoption that I could imagine this scene very well taking place. It feels very real and vivid to me.
The Possibility of You spans three generations. What insights did writing this book give you into how things have changed for women over the last century? Were there any important issues you specifically wanted to address, such as post-partum depression or access to birth control?
Definitely access to birth control is huge, but beyond that, as a woman who came of reproductive age at the time Billie did, I really wanted to write about how relatively naive and idealistic and also repressed people were about sex and pregnancy in the 1970s, supposedly the age of sexual freedom. I even got a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which every young woman had at the time, and in there was a lot about abortion but very little about pregnancy.
An interesting aspect of the story is how some of the women in the Heterodoxy Club, who are advocating for women’s rights, have a derogatory attitude toward Bridget. Why the contradiction? Did you come across anything in your research that sheds light on this?
The women in the Heterodoxy Club—which was real and the common denominator for famous women of that day—were all wealthy and educated and upper class. There was then, and for decades to come, a casual classism and racism among people who on the other hand were fighting for women’s rights or other kinds of social equality. And the Irish, of course, were seen as an inferior race. The parallel between that ethnic prejudice and the prejudice against Italians and blacks was something I wanted to explore.
You say on your website that The Possibility of You started out as a historical novel focused on an Irish nanny whose young charge dies in the 1916 polio epidemic. How did it transform into a story set in three different time periods, including the present?
It started out as a historical novel with a much pared-down version of the 1976 Billie story as a framing story. But the framing story never really worked; it just wasn’t compelling enough. One early reader said the 1976 story consisted of Billie saying, “And then what did you do, Grandma?” Zzzzzzzzz. And so I kept looking for ways to make the framing story more modern and more compelling and also to make the events of 1916 matter more going forward.
What do you most enjoy about writing historical novels? What can you tell us about the one you’re currently working on?
This is my first historical novel and I’m hooked. There was a steep learning curve: I remember asking writers I admire like Geraldine Brooks and Jodi Picoult how they knew when to stop researching and start writing, and whether they did all their research before they began. Research some, write some, research some more was the message. And at some point you need to let go of all that great history you’ve learned and just let the characters live and breathe.
I’m working on two new novels now, both compelling and wrestling for my attention. One is another historical novel, set again in 1916, in the Adirondacks at a great rustic estate owned by a young widow, modeled on Margaret Vanderbilt, whose husband has gone down with the Lusitania. Grief stricken, she travels north to sell the place, only to encounter the amazing bed that the resident woodsman—hunky, naturally—has spent the winter building for her on her late-husband’s instructions.
As with The Possibility of You, there is also a present-day story that parallels the historical tale. The other book is a contemporary novel, funny but I hope also deep, about four characters— two women, two men—searching for happiness in a modern world that promises a lot but often doesn’t deliver, at least not in the obvious ways.