Reunion, by Hannah Pittard

brother and sis

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

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.

MENU

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:

Hannah Pittard

Hannah Pittard

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.

MUSIC

Hannah provided me with her playlist created for the LargeHearted Boy music blog: lhbhttp://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.

MOVIE CASTING

Kate — Charlize Theron

Nell — Liv Tyler

Elliott — John Corbett

Peter — Jason Seagal

reunion

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The Fates Will Find Their Way, by Hannah Pittard, and Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

missing-milk-carton-psd53543“Lydia is dead.  But they don’t know this yet.”

“Some things were certain; they were undeniable, inarguable.  Nora Lindell was gone, for one thing.  There was no doubt about that.”

These are the opening lines from Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, and The Fates Will Find Their Way, by Hannah Pittard.  I happened to pack both for my summer vacation without realizing that despite differences in story-telling technique, both concern high school girls gone missing:  Lydia Lee, a tenth grader at Middlewood High School in Northwest Ohio disappears on May 3, 1977 in Ng’s 2014 bestseller.  Nora Lindell disappears from her widowed father’s home somewhere in the Midwest on Halloween, sometime in the late-1980s in Pittard’s debut novel.  Both Lydia and Nora leave gaping mysteries in their wake to be unravelled by those who loved them most.  In Lydia’s case, her parents and her siblings, Nath and Hannah.  In Nora’s, a chorus of neighborhood boys who speculate about Nora’s life, alternate theories of disappearance, her sole sibling a younger sister and just whose children the three girls are who turn up for Mr. Lindell’s funeral.

everythingEverything I Never Told You begins with the traditional end.  Lydia is dead and her family finds out about it within a few pages of the beginning of the book.  What remains is a meditation on the family’s life, the role of a mixed marriage in a tradition-bound place and time, the pain and recrimination and guilt associates with a woman who relinquished her professional dreams for her family.

The New York Times gave it high praise and named Ng’s debut novel a notable book of the year.

Ng has structured “Everything I Never Told You” so we shift between the family’s theories and Lydia’s own story, and what led to her disappearance and death, moving toward the final, devastating conclusion. What emerges is a deep, heartfelt portrait of a family struggling with its place in history, and a young woman hoping to be the fulfillment of that struggle. This is, in the end, a novel about the burden of being the first of your kind — a burden you do not always survive.  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/17/books/review/everything-i-never-told-you-by-celeste-ng.html?_r=0Scan20078

Everything I Never Told You satisfied all my requirements for a great read:  complex, interesting characters, beautiful language, a fascinating plot.  The touchstone references of the Partridge Family/Brady Bunch were a special treat.

fatesThe Fates Will Find Their Way is another debut novel.  Pittard uses the collective voice of the neighborhood boys who were fascinated by Nora Lindell and her sister, Sissy, to speculate as to why she disappeared (she ran away to her grandmother in Arizona; she was molested by a teenager in a Catalina; she was murdered and buried in the leaves two counties away; she caught a plane and never looked back), and what may have happened to her (she died on November 1, 1977, she lived with a man in Arizona and had three children, she ended up in Mumbai).  It is not Nora or Sissy that is important in the reflections of the boys – to – men, it is how their perceptions of Nora reveal their own growth, development, their own triumphs, failures, losses, disappointments, disasters and tragedies.

Jennifer Gilmore’s review in the NYTimes points out:

As deeply felt as “The Fates Will Find Their Way” might be, it only circles around a plot, and so its collective voice eventually loses strength. The more characters are peeled away from the group, the less powerful the original collective becomes. We wind up knowing little more at the end than we did in those opening pages.

But perhaps that’s the point. Though on the surface this seems to be a novel about a girl’s disappearance, at its core it’s about how children become adults. “We cannot help but shudder at the things adults are capable of,” Pittard writes, as the now-grown narrators watch their own daughters. That shift, from what teen­agers can do to one another to what adults can do to children, is crucial. But what this novel is really examining is the moment when such a reckoning occurs.  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/books/review/Gilmore-t.html

I have recently read The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides, and found these two novels similar in plot, technique and voice.

Maybe it’s the success of Gone Girl, or the Nancy Grace factor, or simply the existence of Fox News’ Missing Girl channel, but it seems like every time I turn around there’s some version of the missing teen mystery playing somewhere.  These two novels, at least, give the old story a new twist.  Both are excellent book club choices with lots of fodder for discussion — both in terms of plot and execution.

MENU(s)

Fates

Mrs. Epstein’s Rice Krispie treats

Mrs. Price’s bananas and peanut butter

Mrs. Rutherford’s cake batter

Mrs. Hatchet’s fruit roll-ups, Coca-Cola gummy bottles

Mrs. Dinnerman’s fruit bowl

Mexican food a la Nora’s “Mexican”

Halloween Candy

Everything

Char Sui Bau:  Chinese pork buns.  I wouldn’t try to make them, but they play a critical role in the book and it would be fun to purchase some for your party.

Eggs:  Scrambled, Boiled, Over Easy.  Your choice.  Or go for the full commitment, and make them to order.

Swedish Fish candy

Betty Crocker’s White Cake

betty crocker

2 cups Gold Medal™ all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup shortening
3/4 cup water
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
Frosting
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup shortening
2/3 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla

Directions

  • Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour bottom and sides of 13×9-inch pan, two 9-inch round cake pans, or three 8-inch round cake pans. In large bowl, beat all cake ingredients with electric mixer on low speed 30 seconds, scraping bowl constantly. Beat on high speed 3 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Pour into pan(s).
  • Bake rectangle 40 to 45 minutes, rounds 30 to 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool rectangle in pan on cooling rack. Cool rounds 10 minutes; remove from pans to cooling rack. Cool completely. 
  • In 2 1/2-quart saucepan, mix all frosting ingredients except vanilla. Heat to rolling boil, stirring occasionally. Boil 1 minute without stirring. Place saucepan in bowl of ice and water. Beat until frosting is smooth and spreadable; stir in vanilla. Frost rectangle or fill and frost layers with frosting. 
MUSIC
Everything contains more music references.  Things like the Partridge Family and Waterloo (ABBA).  Given that Lydia disappears in 1977, any songs from that era would be grand.
Fates contains a lot of scenes that feel like a junior high school make-out party that you just know would be banging out tunes.  But I don’t find mention of anything specific.  There is however, a handy-dandy youtube compilation of the 9 1/2 Weeks soundtrack available here:  https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLFBA25B39F32401FE

MOVIE CASTING

No suggestions on this for now.  Feel free to add your own!

Happy Reading!