No one knows how to punch a button better than a sibling. Whether it’s referring to the younger sister as “Pooh,” her hated childhood nickname, or reminding the know-it-all older brother how he failed Calculus thirty years ago, siblings have a knack being a best friend, sometimes an only friend, and worst enemy. In Hannah Pittard’s second novel Reunion, the Pulaski siblings are alternately all of these and more to one another.
Kate Pulaski is flying home, stranded on the tarmac waiting for a storm to pass so she can get home to her estranged husband. She’s trying to figure out if her affair was a cause or a result of problems in her marriage and what exactly she does and does not want to do about it. She gets a message telling her that her father has died. The message, a voice mail, happens to be on speaker phone and Kate as well as all those in hearing distance hear older brother Elliott Pulaski tell his sister that their father has walked onto his porch in Atlanta and shot himself in the head. Then, he orders her to come home.
Delta Airlines vintage advertisement
Home . . . in Atlanta . . . Kate, Elliott and Nell, the three siblings of Frank Pulaski and his first wife, must confront the succeeding four wives and each of their progeny. It’s failing screenwriter Kate’s worst nightmare: she hates all of the wives, is keeping the secrets of her impending divorce and financial crisis secret from her full siblings and would rather never see again any of the half siblings all while confronting her emotions about her father’s death . . . and life.
Reunion ups the ante on your normal holiday get-togethers by adding death and an inordinate number of spouses and siblings. But Hannah Pittard pinpoints with heartbreaking specificity the underlying crucible of drama, superiority, inferiority, love, hate, judgment, forgiveness and understanding — those elements which underlie both the smallest family holiday and the circus of Reunion.
I had the pleasure of participating in a two-day workshop led by Hannah, a professor at the University of Kentucky, during the Kentucky Women Writers’ Conference last month and thoroughly enjoyed her class, the women writers I met in it, and Hannah herself. That’s not why I read Reunion though. Hannah’s first novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, was one of the most compelling novels I read last summer. https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/shes-gone-the-fates-will-find-their-way-by-hannah-pittard-and-everything-i-never-told-you-by-celeste-ng/ And I look forward to reading Listen to Me and Atlanta, 1962 which should be coming out soon.
Reunion was named a Millions‘ Most Anticipated Book, a Chicago Tribune Editor’s Choice, a BuzzFeed Top-5 Great Book, a Best New Book by People Magazine, a Top-10 Read by Bustle Magazine and LibraryReads, a Must-Read by TimeOut Chicago, and a Hot New Novel by Good Housekeeping. Kirkus Reviews called it “well-written, with a clear narrative voice.” https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/hannah-pittard/reunion-pittard/
Anyone who has ever wanted to use a sibling as a dart board will love it.
There are several scenes of cooking. Southern family and funeral, food is inevitable. I asked Hannah what she would suggest and here’s her answer:
I imagine the meal the characters are cooking the second night in Atlanta (when Nell’s in the tank top and jean shorts) to be some sort of tomato-y Italian deliciousness. Eggplant parmesan? Lasagne? Something filling and family-style. You know? My husband is the chef in this house, otherwise I’d provide a recipe!
What I can give you is the recipe for a super stiff, super fresh, super dry margarita, which is my go-to drink while writing or when watching my husband cook us dinner.
Per drink, here’s the recipe. Super simple:
2 ounces tequila (I love Milagro silver)
1 ounce fresh lime
just shy one half ounce Pierre Ferrande Dry Curacao
Fill a shaker with the above ingredients and tons of ice; shake the sh*t out of it; serve over ice with a fresh lime. Don’t bother cleaning anything because you’ll be making seconds before you know it!
Whenever there was a death in my family, a casserole or two would fill the bill.
Hannah provided me with her playlist created for the LargeHearted Boy music blog: http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2014/10/book_notes_hann_3.html
What I love about this exercise is that it asks me to do what I’m almost always doing in my head at any given moment of the day. As I kid, I was such a romantic. I desperately wanted to live my life inside a John Hughes movie. I didn’t just want the happy ending. I wanted the heartache that led up to the happy ending. The closest I could come to living inside a movie was through music. Even when it wasn’t playing, I pretended it was. And often — this is embarrassing, but… — often I’d even pretend there was a camera on me. So while my parents might have been minding their own business – sitting in the front seat on a drive across town to eat Chinese, say – I was probably in the back seat, imagining what I looked like on screen to all of my viewers and imagining also what mournful (always mournful) song they might be listening to as I went on with my listless life. In many ways, I’ve been waiting to be asked for this playlist since the day I hit puberty.
“The Only Living Boy in New York” – Simon & Garfunkel
This might seem like an obvious pick because the song is about a plane ride, and my book begins on a plane, but it’s also the perfect opener 1) because of the tone (a magical combination of hope and despair) and 2) because it’s the song I’ve listened to the most number of times in my life, on planes and off them. It’s a song that feels both like the beginning and the end. And because http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0989360466/ref=nosim/largeheartedb-20″>Reunion is my most autobiographical novel (side note: I have never cheated on my husband, but I have been in epic credit card debt), I am giving this song to Kate, my narrator, who, as the novel begins, is sitting on an airplane with news that her father has just committed suicide.
“Common People” – Pulp
Kate’s a mess. She’s also in debt. She and her husband have a wicked fight early on in the novel. “Common People” is my go-to song when I need to run a 7-minute mile. Kate doesn’t need to run a 7-minute mile, but after the argument, she’s filled with a similar sort of energetic rage. Since she and her husband are in public (at the airport) when the fight goes down, Kate can’t scream. But I can totally see her finding a bathroom stall, putting in her earphones, and dancing the shit out of this song afterwards.
“The Nights Too Long” – Lucinda Williams
I’m a Lucinda Williams nut, but somehow I only recently discovered this song and, as a result, it’s been on heavy rotation in my home. It’s the story of Sylvia, who says, “I’m moving away, I’m gonna get what I want… I won’t be needing these silly dresses and nylon hose ‘cause when I get to where I’m going, I’m going to buy me all new clothes.” Sylvia is both optimistic and doleful. She is aching for life, for experience, for something bigger and better than what she has. So is Kate. (So are we all? Sometimes? Most of the time?)
“On Saturday Night” – Lyle Lovett
It’s a song about getting high with your family, which happens – in life and in this book.
“Rewrite” – Paul Simon
This song is playing as Kate drunkenly sets the table for dinner. It’s apt since she’s a failed screenwriter who might very soon be looking for work at a carwash.
“Corpus Christi Bay” – Robert Earle Keen
This is a lugubrious, earnest snapshot of brotherhood and drunkenness. If it’s a love story, it’s a love story between two brothers: “We were bad for one another, but we were good at having fun.” http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0989360466/ref=nosim/largeheartedb-20″>Reunion is, in its way, a love story between siblings. But what makes this song so perfect is that Kate, the narrator, is pining for a time that no longer exists. Her siblings have moved on; they’ve grown up. But there’s also a clarity towards the end of the novel that Kate is moving towards. Alcohol is the least of her troubles (maybe not least?), but this song certainly hints at her nearing epiphany: “If I could live my life all over, it wouldn’t matter anyway because I never could stay sober…”
“Most of the Time” – Bob Dylan
It’s morning, the day of the funeral, and Kate gets a phone call from her husband that she’s been both expecting and dreading. The sound of the song fits the mood of the moment beautifully, but so do the lyrics. “Most of the time she ain’t even in my mind… I don’t pretend. I don’t even care if I ever see her again. Most of the time.” Kate’s a liar who’s been trying to come clean about her feelings, but that’s a hard thing to do when you disagree with your own heart.
“Keep Me in Your Heart” – Warren Zevon
This is non-negotiable. This is the song you should play as you read the final chapter. It’s a song I can’t listen to without crying. It’s a song I can barely think of without crying. I think first – because you have to – of Warren Zevon himself. It’s his song and it’s his plea: “I’m running out of breath. Keep me in your hearts for while. If I leave you, it doesn’t mean I love you any less…” It’s so sincere, so simple, so honest. So the words are his, yes, but they’re also the words of anyone who has ever been left or who’s ever leaving or about to leave. This song captures everything Kate can’t articulate.
“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” – Arcade Fire
Finally, because this is a book about childhood and about family and, most of all, siblings, the song that you should listen to after you finish and – if I’ve done my job – while you’re still imagining Kate, imagining those next few minutes and maybe those next few hours, especially if you stay with the idea of her long enough to envision her on the flight home, this is the song. This is definitely the song that’s playing as the plane takes off.
Kate — Charlize Theron
Nell — Liv Tyler
Elliott — John Corbett
Peter — Jason Seagal