Today, I’m going to share a book excerpt and a Q & A with author L. Alison Heller.
Her book, The Never Never Sisters will be released on June 3rd.
An absorbing, highly entertaining novel about family secrets, The Never Never Sisters introduces you to the strong-willed and big-hearted Reinhardt women, as they reunite one summer in New York. Gifted storyteller L. Alison Heller has written another witty and moving page-turner that will captivate readers and keep them guessing right up until the satisfying end.
Sometimes you just need to get away .
Marriage counselor Paige Reinhardt is counting down the days to summer, eager to reconnect with her workaholic husband at their cozy rental cottage in the Hamptons. But soon a mysterious crisis at Dave’s work ruins their getaway plans. Paige is still figuring out how to handle the unexplained chill in her marriage when her troubled sister suddenly returns after a two-decade silence. Now, instead of enjoying the lazy summer days along the ocean, Paige is navigating the rocky waters of a forgotten bond with her sister in the sweltering city heat.
As she attempts to dig deeper into Dave’s work troubles and some long-held family secrets, Paige is shocked to discover how little she knows about the people closest to her. Is it worth risking your most precious relationships in order to find yourself?
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(NAL trade paperback, 6/3)
The first thing I do is offer them candy. I keep a jar of it, well-stocked, right there on the coffee table.
In my experience, people are one hundred percent less likely to tell a lie with a Hershey’s Kiss tucked into the side of their mouth. So while they’re unwrapping their chocolate or caramel or whatever, I lob the easy questions at them: How long have they been together? Do they have any kids?
And then, once they’ve relaxed a little, settled into the beige couch across from my blue chair, I probe: What do they want out of our meeting? If I sense from one of them a certain reticence, as I did that Tuesday morning, I repeat the question.
I’ve found it helpful, when pressing for the truth, to lean forward and hold eye contact. So I employed this method as I posed the question once more to both Scott Jacoby and his wife, Helene.
“What. Do. You. Want?”
Helene—a tiny feminine woman with the brash voice of a New York City traffic cop—stared back at me with an electric gaze. “To save our marriage.”
I’m not sure how I developed this particular niche, but usually the couples who I meet with in counseling sessions aren’t in need of mere tune-ups. No one asks me for tips on how to stoke an already ignited passion or to help mediate a dispute so that both parties feel sufficiently heard. My clients come to me in full-on crisis mode, swinging from the broken rope bridge of their marriage—the point at which they’ll either let go into free fall or scramble to safety.
Scott was still silent, his arms crossed over his navy suit jacket. I hadn’t yet determined whether he was annoyed at having to leave work in the middle of the day or if his body language was a symptom of greater marital fatigue.
He stared across the room in the direction of the photo I’d hung on the wall. It was a picture from my wedding two years before, not that my clients could tell this, because it was of our midsections and taken from the back: my white silk veil, the dark block of my husband Dave’s tux, our interlocking forearms. I hoped it was generic enough that people would see in it their own happier times, but Scott’s unfocused eyes indicated that he wasn’t envisioning anything so hopeful.
“What do you really want, Scott?”
Waiting for his response, Helene leaned so far forward in her chair that she appeared to be praying. I’ve seen a lot of heartache in my office, but it took my breath away—those troubled eyes in the middle of that frozen, perfectly made-up face.
“Scott?” My voice was as gentle as it could be.
Finally, Scott sighed, then rubbed his cheek with his right hand. “I don’t know what I want.”
“Okay.” I took care to sound appropriately neutral. “Take some time. Try to think about it.” I pushed the candy jar toward him. It should be said that I buy only the good stuff: Hershey’s Kisses, Werther’s, Reese’s Minis—none of those nubby little mints or hard candies with wrappers in the image of strawberries to help you associate the flavor.
Although I know better than to take it personally whether my clients’ marriages work or not . . . I can’t help myself. I take it all very personally.
Dave had pointed out the irony of this when I came home one day and declared I was a failure. (I was right on that count; the Guinetts did not make it.) “You ask them what they want, right?”
“Yes.” He’d left out the second part, the “why,” so I reminded him. “It’s like an oral contract. They commit to wanting the marriage to work in that initial moment and it’s helpful later, when things get tough.”
“But if you keep having to remind them what they want, how do you know it’s still truly what they want?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” I had said. “It’s a very intimate environment in my office.” I didn’t have a good response right then, but two days later, when I heard his key in the lock, I met him at the door with a spatula. “Listen,” I said.
He’d stepped back, out of the range of the spatula, which had dripped marinara sauce in a large splotch in the entry hall. “Listening.”
“If people come to me, they want to protect their marriages. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help them—okay?”
He’d leaned down and kissed my head. “Okay.”
As I explained to Helene and Scott how we could proceed, that was the undercurrent I tried to convey: that I respected their step toward protecting the sacred and that I would help them as best I could.
I will always remember that—the three of us sitting in the office, clustered around the candy jar, as we pledged to resuscitate their marriage, me just the tiniest bit smug, totally oblivious to the fact that at that exact moment, my own marriage had begun to fall apart.
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with L. Alison Heller
1. What was the original inspiration for the story?
It all started with Dave (Paige’s husband) and his betrayal. And, as they always do, things twisted and turned from there.
I understand—on a gut level—that parental rush to defense when a kid does something horrible. But what about when it’s someone you married? If you think you know someone better than anyone—and then you learn something that disrupts that narrative—do you change the narrative or do backbends trying to smoothly incorporate the new fact?
I think people probably do both—and maybe degrees of each every day—and I wanted to explore that. And as readers of THE LOVE WARS might know, I’m a bit fascinated by the big law firm culture. During my time working at various offices, there were colleagues who got disciplined for getting caught doing (ahem) untoward things. I never stopped wondering about their spouses. I thought it would be especially interesting if the pair dealing with such a conflict was a “golden couple”: supremely blessed on the surface with some hidden baggage.
2. There are a lot of communication problems in the book — occasions where characters either don’t say what they’re thinking or say too much or build walls in the face of someone’s else’s admission: Paige and Vanessa, Paige and Dave, Sloane and . . .almost everyone. Which character’s style do you most relate to?
Like most people, I have a fairly constant inner monologue that stays in my head. In truth, I relate to all the characters from Paige—who’s a bit obsessed with helping people communicate that nugget of truth—to Frankie, who wants to hide behind a newspaper and sip information like it’s an 180 degree cup of coffee from MacDonald’s.
The right information communicated between the right people is how intimacy is formed. Don’t you feel closest to the people whom you can be completely honest with, and whom you feel can be honest with you? Navigating this—what you share with those close to you and what you keep for yourself—is, I think, definitely more art than science for most people. We share because we’re moved to by a connection or moment or someone else’s admission, but there are also times when we share—or don’t—as a matter of strategy.
At the beginning of the story, Paige would claim that she knows everything that matters about both her mom and her husband. She’s willing to accept certain areas of silence between them because they’re not critical to her here and now, but as
Paige delves deeper into family secrets, she starts to see that those silences have had a great impact. And that she’s troublingly capable of maintaining her own strategic silences too.
The book is really about the limits of knowledge and communication and how we assimilate those limits. How do we each trust and build our own truths to better connect to the people in our lives? And when do we limit what we share for self-
3. At the end of the book, Paige has loosened the strings of some of those crucial relationships and reinforced others. Without giving too much away, were you trying to explore what’s forgivable in a marriage?
Absolutely. And explore how people reconcile two fundamental and opposing truths:
A. That there’s a basic, human need for attachment and connection.
B. That the human experience is a singular one.
I think so much of life is reconciling these two facts. As Orson Welles said, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone.” (Cheers, everyone!)
About halfway through writing this novel, I had just dropped off my daughter at school when I passed a couple on the street corner. They were—rather romantically and dramatically—kissing each other goodbye before heading off to their offices or wherever they were going. They looked so unbearably sad about parting, and then, in the moment after they did, the woman blithely skipped down the steps to the subway as though the only thing on her mind was not missing the train. It was like seeing two different people. (For a while this was the opening scene in the novel.)
There’s this romantic ideal about two people going off into the sunset on a horse (or in a carriage or a flying convertible like in Grease). But you know once they’ve been on that horse for a while, someone will get thirsty when the other will want to keep going until they reach the destination. Someone will want to help that guy on the side of the road and the other will think he’s a serial killer. Everyone makes bargains in their relationships. Everyone lets their principles slide or evolve at some point to honor their connections—it’s just a question of knowing where your lines are at any given moment.
Because, as the above Orson Welle’s quote ends, “ . . .only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.”
4. It was so interesting how Paige, a marriage counselor, helped couples find their way back to each other as she grappled with issues in her own marriage. At one point she says to Percy, “I’m not like my clients.” Did you make her a marriage counselor to provide that contrast?
This is an especially funny question because Paige did a lot of floundering in the early drafts, before she became a marriage counselor. She tutored a bit for standardized tests. She dabbled in grad school (medical, dental) and she spent a lot of time and effort beautifying and mixing up health shakes filled with things like flaxseed and kale protein powder. (I don’t know if there is such as thing as kale protein powder, actually. But it does sound healthy and it would have totally been up Paige’s alley.)
None of that felt one hundred percent right, though. Paige had to be a woman of opinions, someone who thought she’d figured out all the answers for relating. I’m a divorce lawyer and mediator as well as a wife—how couples relate and bond or dissolve in the face of external forces and internal conflict is of lifelong fascination to me.
Paige’s job change felt very natural. It made a lot in the story click and, really, she was much happier and stronger as soon as we gave her that job. (My editor and I both breathed a little sigh of relief.) Frankly, it was nice to give her that anchor, because she gets quite a lot thrown at her, including that being a marriage counselor doesn’t give you an automatic answer guide to your own relationships.
5. I really enjoyed Giovanni. (In the book, Giovanni is Sloane’s boyfriend. Sloane is Paige’s sister.) Whenever he showed up in the book, I laughed. Was that a deliberate choice to make him light?
I’m so glad! Giovanni made me laugh too. He was probably the most fun to write. (Although Vanessa, Paige’s mother, was a close second.)
I’ve known (and envied) people like Giovanni, who just don’t seem get in their own way. Initially Paige underestimates him because of the games and the jokes, but really, he’s able to distill things to their core simplicity and talk about it, which is a great ability.
And, yes, Giovanni provides some much needed contrast to the Reinhardt women. He’s reductive where Paige is alternatively oblivious and hyper-aware. He’s sunny where Sloane (Paige’s sister) is moody, and he’s an open book, in stark contrast to Vanessa. To me, Giovanni’s lightness is personality, but also due to how he was raised. He is open and communicative because that’s who his family is.
6. What surprised you the most in writing the book?
I love this question because being surprised while writing a novel is unavoidable, as well as one of the best parts.
Aside from how very many drafts it took, I’d say the biggest surprise was the evolution of certain characters. A lot shifts as I draft, but one constant here on the journey from idea to completed manuscript was the substance of Dave’s “lie” and how it impacts Paige and Dave’s marriage. I was not expecting to become as fond of Dave as I did, or that there would be such genuine compatibility between him and Paige. I’m so glad I stuck it out with him, because it complicated Paige’s choice and forced her to explore her personal belief system: what makes one transgression forgivable and another not? I’m very curious how readers felt about Dave throughout the book, so please—shoot me an email. I’d love to hear!
Vanessa (Paige’s mother) surprised me too. Her journal entries kept getting deeper and deeper. Finally my editor suggested I expand her points of view in the contemporary timeline, which, in my opinion added another layer of dimension to the story. Vanessa is a little tricky: she builds massive walls and is also incredibly, piercingly honest, especially in her journals. I loved writing those entries; I think a lot of people tap into something different voice-wise when they write and that was very liberating to explore how open and raw she was.
Obviously this is primarily Paige’s story, but Vanessa helped THE NEVER NEVER SISTERS come together. She mines a lot of the themes I wanted to explore—how the struggle to find your own truth dovetails with the struggle of those closest to you, how one’s own narrative and identity impacts parenting style and experience and the role of familial expectation in all of it.
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