Jules Strauss is a Princeton senior on a full scholarship who plans on selling her “pedigree” eggs to help save her father from addiction.
Annie Barrow, a struggling Pennsylvania housewife, thinks that carrying another woman’s child will help her recover a sense of purpose and will bring in some much-needed cash.
India Bishop, thirty-eight (really, forty-three) and recently married to the wealthy Marcus Croft, yearns for a baby for reasons that have more to do with money than with love. When her attempts at pregnancy fail, she turns to Jules and Annie to make her dreams come true.
But each of their plans is thrown into disarray when Bettina, Marcus’s privileged daughter, becomes suspicious that her new stepmother is not what she seems...
Told with Jennifer Weiner’s trademark wit and sharp observations, Then Came You is a hilarious, tender, and timely tale that explores themes of class and entitlement, surrogacy and charity, the rights of a parent and the measure of a mother.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.34(w) x 8.04(h) x 1.03(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:March 28, 1970
Place of Birth:De Ridder, Louisiana
Education:B.A., Princeton University, 1991
Read an Excerpt
The man in the suit was watching me again.
It was March of my senior year in college, a clear, chilly afternoon, when I felt what was, by then, the familiar weight of a man’s gaze, while I sat by myself in the food court. I looked up from my dinner, and there he was, at the end of the line for the salad place, looking at me the way he had for the past three weeks.
I sighed. The mall was one of my favorite places, and I didn’t want to give it up because of some creep.
I’d found the mall my freshman year. If you walked off campus, across Nassau Street and into a kiosk in the center of town, you could buy a discounted ticket with your student ID, and the bus would take you to a fancy shopping center with a fancy name, the Princeton MarketFair. There were all of the chains: a Pottery Barn and a Restoration Hardware, and Gaps, both Baby and full-grown, a Victoria’s Secret where you could buy your panties and a LensCrafters where you could pick up a pair of sunglasses, all of them in a sprawling, sterile building with marble floors and flattering, pink-tinted lights. At one end of the mall was a big, airy bookstore, with leather armchairs where you could curl up and read. At the other end was a movie theater that showed four-dollar matinees on Mondays. Between them was the food court.
Shortly after my discovery, I’d learned that only losers used public transportation. I’d found this out when I heard two of my classmates scornfully discussing a date that a girl we all knew had been on. “He took her to the movies. On the bus.” Giggle, giggle ... and then a quick look sideways to me, for my approval, because, tall and blond and with two juniors on the varsity crew team vying for my affection, I couldn’t possibly fall into the busgirl’s category.
The truth was I liked the bus, and I liked the mall. It felt real, and Princeton’s campus, with its perfect green lawns and its ivy-clad, gargoyle-ornamented, stained-glass-windowed buildings, and its students, none of whom seemed to suffer from acne or obesity or even bad-hair days, felt like a film set, too wonderful to exist. On campus, everyone walked around as if they’d never had a second of doubt, an instant of feeling like they didn’t belong, carrying their expensive laptops and textbooks, dressed just right. People at the mall did not look as if they’d just stepped out of catalogs. Their clothes were sometimes stained or too tight. They walked past the shop windows yearning after things they didn’t need and couldn’t afford: end-of-their-rope mothers snapping at their kids, boyfriends sighing and shifting their weight from foot to foot as they lingered outside the dressing rooms at Anthropologie, teenagers texting each other from a distance of less than three feet away across the table; the fat people, the old people, the ones with walkers or oxygen tanks or wheelchairs—all of them reminded me of home. Besides, I could practically be guaranteed to never see anyone from school there—not on the bus, for sure; not at the movie theater, at least in the daytime; definitely not scarfing kung pao chicken from China Express. Maybe my classmates came here to buy things, but they never stayed long, which made the mall my secret, a place where I could be myself.
Most Mondays, when my classes ended at 2:00, I’d take the bus and I’d browse in the stores, maybe trying on shoes or a pair of jeans, and I’d see a matinee of whatever movie looked interesting, then have dinner in the food court, or at the sit-down seafood restaurant if I’d managed to pick up some extra hours at my work-study job in the admissions office. For less than twenty dollars, I could make a whole afternoon and early evening pleasantly disappear.
I looked up from my plate again. The man was holding his briefcase, standing in profile, looking like he was trying to decide what to do next. It could, I knew, go one of two ways: he’d keep staring, or he’d work up the nerve to cross the tiled floor and say something.
When I was thirteen, my father sat me down and gave me a little speech. “There’s something you should know,” he’d said. We were in the family room, half a flight down from the front door, a room with pine-paneled walls and mauve-colored carpet and a glass-topped coffee table on which there were a decade’s worth of yearbooks, one for every year my father had been the yearbook advisor at McKinley Junior High.
“What’s that?” This was in the fall; I’d been wearing my soccer uniform; shorts and shin guards and a sweatshirt I’d pulled on for the bike ride home. My dad was in his worn black recliner, a glass of ice cubes and whiskey in his hand, still dressed in the coat and tie he wore to school. My mom was in the kitchen making baked chicken—she’d dip each piece in a mixture of buttermilk and mustard, then roll it in cornflake crumbs. That chicken, along with Rice-A-Roni and a cut-up head of iceberg lettuce doused in bottled ranch dressing, was my favorite meal, and all I wanted was to take a hot shower, pull on my sweatpants and a too-big T-shirt, eat my dinner, and get to my homework. For the first time, math was actually hard for me, and I knew I’d need at least half an hour to get through the problem set we’d been assigned.
My dad ducked his head, sipped his drink, and said into the knot of his tie, “Men are going to look at you.”
This wasn’t news to me, and hadn’t been for a while. “It’s not your fault, Julia,” said my father, pulling off his glasses as he spoke. “It’s what men do. It’s how we’re wired, maybe, men and women. We’re programmed to notice each other.”
I’d flicked my ponytail over my shoulder. I was already five foot four inches of the eventual five foot nine I’d reach. My hair was thick and butterscotch blond, and that fall I’d graduated from a training bra to an actual B-cup, and started junior high. These events combined made me feel as if my body wasn’t really me anymore, but something I lived inside; a borrowed blouse I’d snuck out of my mother’s closet, something I needed to treat carefully and could, if I was lucky, one day return.
Men will look, my dad had said, watching me with a mixture of love and regret. Sometimes, he’d quote a line of Yeats, about how “only God, my dear / could love you for yourself / And not your golden hair.” It made me feel strange, a little proud, a little ashamed, especially because the truth, which maybe he’d guessed, was that men were already doing more than looking: they’d hoot, they’d whistle, they’d make sucking, smooching sounds when I was alone, walking home from school, and they were in their cars. One of my classmates, Tim Sather, seemed to have decided that his mission in life was to snap my bra strap as often as he could, and Mr. Traub, the gym teacher, would wrap his arms around me, letting his jogging-suited torso press, briefly but firmly, against my back as he helped me with my volleyball serve. That summer I’d been wearing my swimsuit, a dark-blue one-piece, and running through the sprinkler with the Lurie kids, whom I’d been babysitting at the time, and I’d looked up to find Mr. Santos, who lived next door to the Luries, staring at me over the top of his fence with his mouth hanging open. A few weeks later, my older brother, Greg, had gotten in a fight at the town park’s swimming pool. When my mother had fussed over his black eye and swollen cheek, demanding to know who’d started it, Greg had muttered that the boys had been saying stuff about me. My mother hadn’t asked him anything else, and I’d been embarrassed, unsure of how to behave. Did I thank Greg? Did I ask him what the boys had said, if I’d done anything to provoke it? Finally, I decided to say nothing, to pretend the whole thing had never happened. That seemed like the smartest thing to do.
The worst part wasn’t the boys; it was the girls, the ones who had once been my friends. She thinks she’s sooo pretty, I’d heard Missy Henried sneer to Beth Brock one day at lunch after Matt Blum, staring at me across the cafeteria, had almost walked into a table. Like I’d asked for him to stare. I had a mirror, and I’d seen enough magazines and TV shows to know that I was what was considered good-looking, maybe even beautiful. But the beautiful girls on TV or in those glossy pages all seemed happy. They never looked lonely, like their faces, their hair, their bodies were traps keeping them apart from everyone else. I couldn’t figure out why I felt guilty when boys stared, like I was lying, or offering them something I didn’t really have. All I knew was that Missy and Beth and I had been Brownies together; we’d trick-or-treated every October, giggling in the costumes that had turned us into cheerleaders or witches or Pink Ladies from Grease, posing on Missy’s front porch while her father struggled with his video camera. Now I was their enemy. Now they were on one side of a wall, and I was on the other.
“So what am I supposed to do about it?” I asked my dad. Back then, I thought he knew all the answers. Our house was full of books he’d read, biographies of presidents and scientists, thick hardcover novels with approving quotes from The New Yorker on their backs, different from my mother’s mysteries, which were bright paperbacks with actual people on the covers and titles spelled out in foil.
He’d patted my shoulder. “Just be aware.” Almost ten years later, whenever I felt a man’s eyes passing over me—sometimes lightly, like water, sometimes like the high whining of a mosquito in my ear—I’d remember my father, mumbling into his tie, my father, when he was still all right. Love you, sweetheart, he’d said, and hugged me, the way he hardly ever did since my breasts had gotten bigger than bug bites on my chest.
In the food court, I speared a maraschino cherry on my chopstick. The man in the suit made up his mind, walking away from the salad stand, heading straight toward me. I thought he was in his late thirties, maybe his forties, with dark, curly hair and a handsome, coddled face.
I bent over my dinner, hoping he’d just keep walking, and began the time-consuming process of separating the chilies from the chunks of chicken and pineapple, wondering whether he’d work up the nerve to say something or if he was just cruising by for a closer look. When I looked up again he was standing right in front of my table for two, with nothing to eat.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Do you go to Princeton?”
I nodded, unimpressed. I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt that said Princeton right across the chest. No makeup, except a little lip gloss and the mascara and eyeliner I never left the dorm without, because my lashes are so sparse and fine that they’re basically invisible without a swipe or two of Lash Out, and my eyes are such a pale blue-gray noncolor that they tend to blend into my forehead without liner, giving my face the look of an underbaked pie.
“You like it there?” he asked. I nodded again.
He lifted his briefcase and moved as if he was going to sit down across from me. I edged my metal-legged chair backward, preparing to tell him, politely, that I needed to finish my dinner and get going because my friends were waiting, when he asked, “Do you play any sports?”
This was a surprise. I’d been betting an either What’s your major or Where are you from ... either that or he’d ask me for help, the most common ploy. At the mall, guys would ask which movie I’d seen and if I’d liked it, or if I could help them pick out a necklace or a sweater for their sister or their mom. At the gym, guys would point at the controls for the StairMaster, feigning confusion. Hey, do you know how to work this? In the grocery store, they’d need my assistance picking out pasta or plums. At the gas station, they would require directions; in class, they’d want to know if I’d read the assignment, if I had plans for the weekend, if I’d read this book or heard that band. I know this makes me sound as if my life was a nonstop parade of men who were dying to talk to me, but it’s just the truth. When you look a certain way—blond and tall, with D-cup boobs, with wide-set eyes and a straight nose, and full lips that are dark pink even without lipstick—men want to talk to you. Usually they ask you out, and twice in my life, once in this very mall, I’d been asked if I was a model.
“Field hockey and lacrosse,” I said. I’d played both in high school, but not since.
The man sat down, uninvited. “Are you twenty-one?”
I narrowed my eyes, one hand on the strap of my backpack, wondering whether he was going to propose something illegal or seamy, like phone sex or stripping. Up close, he was older than I’d thought, older than he should have been if he was hitting on a girl my age, maybe forty-five, with a plain gold wedding band on his left hand, and I didn’t want to have dinner with him, or give him my number or my e-mail address or tell him where I lived or let him buy me a drink or a frozen yogurt; I just wanted to finish my food and go back to my dorm room, avoid my boyfriend, curl up with a book, and count the days until graduation. That was when he smiled.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m getting ahead of myself. Jared Baker,” he said, and stuck his hand across the table.
I shook it quickly. The skin of his palms felt as soft as I imagined the skin on his face would. I got to my feet, never mind that half my dinner was still sitting there. “Excuse me, but my friends are probably waiting for me.” I had my tray in one hand and my backpack in the other when Jared Baker said, “How would you like to make twenty thousand dollars?”
I paused. My skin was tingling. Illegal, I thought. It has to be. “Doing what? Smuggling drugs out of Mexico?”
His smile widened so that I could see his teeth. “Egg donation.”
I set my tray back on the table. “Sit,” said Jared Baker, coming around the table to pull my chair out for me. He looped my backpack’s straps over the chair and did everything but spread a paper napkin in my lap. It was a funny performance, like a parody of a man tending to a wife who was fragile as an egg. Or who was carrying fragile eggs. “Eat your dinner.” He frowned at the plate. “Skip the spring roll, though. Saturated fats.”
Looking him right in the eye, I dragged the roll through the slurry of Chinese mustard and duck sauce I’d made, and took a giant bite. His grin widened. “Moxie,” he said. “That’s nice. People like a girl with a sense of humor.”
“Are you serious?” I asked once I’d swallowed. “Twenty thousand dollars for an egg?” I’d seen ads, of course, in the school paper, online, and on fliers posted in the student union and the library. Families seeking egg donors. All expenses paid. Please help make our dreams come true. But I’d never noticed the fee for the egg itself, and I’d never guessed it would be so high.
Jared Baker was friendly, but not smarmy, serious and calm as he asked me more questions: Where had I grown up? What were my SAT scores? Had I ever had an IQ test? Had anyone in my family had cancer or diabetes or mental illness? I gave him the numbers and said no to the illnesses. He pulled a notebook out of his briefcase and asked if I had siblings, how old my mother had been when I was born, and how much I’d weighed as a baby. I was careful with my answers, thinking about what he’d want to hear, what story would go best with the girl he was seeing, a tall, blond, jockish girl in a Princeton sweatshirt who was eating by herself only because her friends had finished first and were waiting for her in the bookstore.
“Ever been pregnant?” he asked, the same way he’d asked if I was a vegetarian or if heart disease ran in my family. I shook my head, ponytail swishing. I’d only had sex with three different boys, an embarrassingly low tally at my age. I was starting to think that I was one of those people who didn’t like sex very much. Maybe it made me lucky. I wouldn’t spend my whole life getting my heart broken, chasing after this guy or that one.
“And are you single?”
I nodded, trying not to look too excited, to give the appearance that men stopped by the food court to offer me piles of cash every Monday I went to the mall, but my mind was racing, imagining what I could do with twenty thousand dollars, a sum I hadn’t imagined possessing unless I won the lottery or married very, very well. Even with the investment-banking job I was going to take after I graduated, I’d have to manage rent in New York City and start paying back my loans, so the idea of having five figures’ worth of discretionary income was new to me, extraordinary, and alluring.
Jared Baker handed me a business card, a rectangle of heavy ivory paper with embossed letters on top that said PRINCETON FERTILITY CLINIC, INC. His name was underneath, with telephone numbers and an e-mail address. “Be in touch,” he said. “I think you’d be an excellent candidate.”
“Twenty thousand dollars,” I said again.
“Minimum,” he repeated. “Oh, and if you wouldn’t mind telling me your name?”
“Julia Strauss,” I said. “My friends call me Jules.”
“Jules,” he said, giving me another appraising look and shaking my hand again.
So that was how it started: in the Princeton MarketFair, over a Styrofoam plate of sweet and sour chicken and a spring roll that I never got to finish. It seemed so simple. I thought that selling an egg would be like giving blood, like checking the Organ Donation box on your driver’s license, like giving away something you’d never wanted or even noticed much to begin with. And yes, at first, I was just in it for the money. It wasn’t about altruism, or feminism, or any other ism. It was about the cash. But I wasn’t going to blow it on clothes or a car or a graduation bash, on Ecstasy or a trip to Vail, or Europe, or one of the hundred frivolous things my classmates might have chosen. I was going to take that money and I was going to try to save my father ... or, more accurately, I was going to give him one last chance to save himself.
© 2011 Jennifer Weiner
What People are Saying About This
“Weiner has emerged as one of the biggest names in popular fiction.” —USA Today
“Jennifer Weiner’s bestselling novels twist humor and topical issues into can’t-put-down stories. Her latest follows the lives of four women who explore conflicting notions of family and motherhood.” —Houston Chronicle
“The conflicts enmeshing all these characters...are gripping, and Weiner’s elucidation of socio-economic determinism is as sharp as ever.” —Kirkus
"A savvy tale… told with equal parts love and longingwhether it be for a partner, a purpose, or a family." —Publishers Weekly
“Compelling...a page-turner. Enjoy this title for its humor mixed with a sympathetic portrayal of real women’s lives and challenges.” —Library Journal
“In this warm and winning yarn, Weiner draws readers into the lives of each woman, and brings them together in an unexpected and ultimately rewarding way. Another surefire hit for the popular author." —Booklist
"Then Came You offers an eye-opening perspective on parenthood in an age where the family is ever evolving." —BookPage
“If you’re a Weiner fan you’ll lap it up. And if you don’t know her yet, here’s the place to start.” —The Washington Post
"Weiner's ability to mix humor, drama and the simplicity of real life makes her newest novel her best to date. The characters are relatable and universal, and readers will remember them long after the last page. With writing that flows like a conversation between best friends - effortless but meaningful - Then Came You is the perfect summer read." —The Houston Chronicle
"Weiner brings her trademark wit and humor to this lively story." —Parade
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Then Came You includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jennifer Weiner. 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.
Questions & Topics for Discussion
- Discuss the different mothers that make up Then Came You. How does the behavior of these women directly affect their children?
- India, Annie, and Jules are all motivated, to a large degree, by financial gain. How did this affect your feelings towards them? Were some of their motivations more acceptable to you than others?
- When visiting her father in Pittsburgh, Jules comments, “I don’t make excuses. I know what he’s doing is illegal. I know that he’s a drain on taxpayers’ resources, that people who work hard at their jobs are the ones paying for his apartment and his food, for the cops that bust him and the counselors who hand him pamphlets about AA and methadone…But he’s my father…and I don’t believe that it’s his fault. It’s not like he’s lazy, some privileged rich kid trying to escape from some imaginary heartache or chasing some feel-good high. He takes drugs so that he can feel something close to normal.” Do you agree with Jules’ assessment? How do you view addiction?
- Surrogacy is a hot-button topic, and many on both ends of the political spectrum take issue with it. Corinne and Nancy are examples of each, and voice two different, opposing views to surrogacy. Locate their arguments within the text. Do you agree with either of these opinions? Where do you stand?
- The novel suggests several motivations for India wanting to have a child. In the end, why do you think this was important to her?
- Did Jules’ story, and the novel in general, change any of your perceptions of egg donation? Would you ever donate an egg? Do you think of egg donation differently than you do sperm donation? Why?
- Discuss Gabe and Annie’s relationship. What purpose do you think Gabe ultimately serves in Annie’s life?
- Early in her marriage, India remarks, “What I was learning was that having was, strangely, less satisfying than wanting…that dreaming of all of this luxury was somehow better than actually possessing it.” Can you empathize with this sentiment? Do you think Annie would agree?
- Consider the different family structures portrayed in the book. What do you think Then Came You is saying about families?
- Annie worries that Frank will feel he isn’t providing sufficiently for his family, if she decides to become a surrogate so that she can contribute to the family income. She also notices that Frank is more likely to lose his temper around bill-paying time. Do you empathize with Frank here?
- If you were to use a surrogate and/or a donor egg to have a child, would you want either of these women to be involved in your life after the child was born? Why or why not?
- Weiner is masterful at describing physical settings. Locate some instances where an interior is described, and discuss what you learn about the people that inhabit that space from this description.
- Did your opinion of India change as the novel progressed? If so, what caused this shift?
- At their first meeting, Kate Klein says to Bettina, “I always tell my clients to be careful what they wish for.” Do you think Bettina made the right decision in choosing not to tell her father what she had learned of India’s past?
- Perception is an important, but often subtle theme of Then Came You. Discuss how each of the main characters wrestles with the way they are publicly perceived. In what ways do they each strive to control their image?
Enhance Your Book Club
- Imagine that you are searching for a donor egg, and consider what you would look for in an ideal candidate. Would they share many of the qualities or attributes you recognize in yourself, or would you want them to possess others? You might also write down these characteristics (be as specific as possible) and share them as a group. Are there common qualities that you would all desire from a donor?
- Pretend that you are a casting director and that Then Came You is your latest project. Who would you cast to portray Annie, Jules, India, and Bettina? What about Frank, Kimmie, Darren, and Marcus?
- Before meeting with your group, read “Meet the Twiblings” by Melanie Thernstrom, a feature that ran in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Discuss how the issues that Ms. Thernstrom grapples with are handled within Then Came You.
- In the final scene of Then Came You we hear “the mythology of Rory’s essential beginnings.” Think about the kind of narrative that you were told to you as a child about your “beginnings”—and if you’re a parent, consider the narratives that you’ve crafted to tell your child. Share these with the group.
A Conversation with Jennifer Weiner
You’ve said before that each of your books has begun with a mental snapshot, a clear visual in your mind. Was that the case with Then Came You, and if so, what was that image? In general, what drew you to the topics of surrogacy and egg donation?
A few years back, the New York Times ran a story by a woman who was unable to carry a pregnancy and eventually hired a surrogate in Pennsylvania to carry a child for her. The infertile woman was married to an older man with adult children. The two of them were very well-off, and the story didn’t stint on the details of her wealth (I remember references to white-water rafting, bourbon tastings, and trips to the SuperBowl) while the surrogate was a woman of much more modest means, whose college degree and computer proficiency were met with condescending surprise.
The story was rich with subtext—about class, about cash, about the way you can get pretty much whatever you want in the world if you’ve got the money to pay for it—but it was the pictures that stayed with me. There was a shot of the new mother, standing in front of her estate in the Hamptons, with a uniformed black maid behind her, holding the baby, like a prize, in her arms…and, a few pages later, a picture of the surrogate on the porch of a falling-down farmhouse by a river, literally barefoot and pregnant.
I had several thoughts at the time, including, “I wonder if the writer had any idea that these were the pictures that would run with the story,” and “Wow. Barefoot and pregnant. Srsly, NYT?” And “have I really given dark spirits enough of a chance?”
But then I thought that there’s something unsettling about the notion of a rich lady paying a less-rich lady to carry her baby, the same way a rich lady might pay a less-rich lady to clean her house, or wax her legs, or do some other bit of grubby, less-glamorous business that the rich woman didn’t want to do herself. Does money belong in the equation when people think about how to build their families? If it’s a necessary evil; if pregnancy’s really just another service, with providers and consumers, how does that play out? All of these were questions that I wrestled with in Then Came You.
What kind of research did you do for Then Came You?
I had read a lot about surrogacy for Certain Girls, so the research for this book involved reading a lot of first-person accounts from egg donors—what you go through physically, and what it feels like when the donation is complete.
Jules, India, Bettina, and Annie are such unique and distinctly defined women. As you were writing, did you find that you had a favorite character? Did you identify with one more than the others?
In this book more than any of my others, all of the characters delighted me, and all of them frustrated me. Which I think means that they’re fully realized. At least, I hope so!
The thing that I identified with most was the thing that ties the four of them together—the longing for what they don’t have; for what, in some cases, they can never have. Bettina and Jules both want their families back; India wants the promise of security, forever; Annie wants to race up the ladder of social status and be the giver instead of the taker. I think that’s universal, the desire for what you’ll never have, or had once and will never get again. Sad, but true.
In the past year, you wrote and co-produced a TV series, “State of Georgia,” which will air on ABC Family this summer. How has writing for television compared to writing a novel? Has it been difficult to go back and forth between the two mediums?
Television’s been refreshing because I have colleagues again. Turns out, I missed working with people, and being in a writers’ room is a lot of fun—you sit around with a bunch of like-minded people and make each other laugh all day long. So I like the camaraderie of television, but I also love the relative quiet of novels, where it’s just me and my thoughts and the characters, and there’s no network giving notes or saying, “Instead of casting the guy you wanted, how about this guy we like?” There’s a lot more independence with writing fiction, where you’re building a universe all by yourself…and then, of course, the excitement when you do get to work with people again—your editor, your publicist, the readers…
This is your first novel to feature a protagonist in a same sex romantic relationship. Did you know when you began writing that Jules and Kimmie would become more than friends?
I had no idea, and it really surprised me! I knew that Jules was a very closed-off, defensive, isolated character, and I knew that, in the course of the story, she’d become more open and more giving, and that the process would begin with her egg donation. I did not see Kimmie coming. Sometimes, you have to let your characters surprise you, and the two of them certainly did!
More so than your other novels, Then Came You tackles issues of class and money head on. Was this an inevitable consequence of writing about surrogacy and egg donation, or was this a deliberate decision?
One of the criticisms of chick lit that’s always bothered me is that the books don’t deal with questions of class and money—that they’re always about upper-middle-class women obsessing about their weight and soothing themselves at the mall. I think that any book about a young woman starting out in the world—first jobs, bad bosses—necessarily takes on questions of economics, whether it’s done in a comical, over-the-top way (see: Shopaholic) or a very poignant, realistic way (see: Free Food for Millionaires).
With Then Came You, I wanted to look at how larger questions of financial inequities inform the process of having a baby by surrogate—how it’s always women of means hiring less-well-off women to perform a physical task; how it is, at its core, a transactional relationship that sometimes morphs into a friendly or even familial one. I’m interested in questions of how people treat each other, and how money, and guilt over having it, or resentment over not having more, comes into play. I loved exploring India’s ambivalence at hiring a woman to do something she couldn’t do, and Annie wondering whether India secretly resented her for being able to do the one thing that she couldn’t.
The scene with Laurena Costovya, the performance artist, and India, is such a compelling and memorable one. What was the inspiration behind this?
I saw Marina Abramovic’s installation at the Museum of Modern Art last year. She performed a piece called “The Artist is Present” where, like Laurena, she sat at a table for eight hours a day, not moving, not speaking, and looked at whoever came to sit across from her. I chose not to be one of the sitters, but I wondered whether being viewed that way would have some kind of impact…whether the people in the hot seat would feel compelled to start blurting out their deepest, darkest secrets, or if they’d feel like they were being known and seen in some ways. It reminded me of the Nietzsche quote, about how when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you.
Then Came You is very much about family—how the families we are born into might fail us and how the families we create might save us. Many of your previous novels have tackled this issue as well. Why is this theme so important to you?
Some author—I can’t remember who—said that fiction is born from a disordered mind’s desire to create order. I think that my fixation with “found families” comes from that place. Life is messy; the family you’re born into doesn’t always function the way you wish it would, but when you grow up you get to pick the people who you’ll spend your life with. That idea’s always comforted me, and I think it’s one that resonates with readers, who might identify with Annie, and her rivalry with her sister, or Bettina and Jules, who each wind up parenting their own parents, or India, whose family failed her so completely. There was something so satisfying about a scenario in which all of the women get a second chance, to build a better family, and I liked exploring the choices that each one of them made.
When you begin crafting a character, what tends to come first for you—their name? Personality? Physical attributes?
Usually, it’s knowing how they sound that comes first. I start hearing their voices. Then I figure out their names. Then—belatedly and badly—I come up with their physical attributes. Then my first readers point out that every woman in the book is tall and blond. Then I go back and fix it.
In the past year, you have been an outspoken critic of the New York Times Book Review for what you see as their bias towards covering “literary” versus “commercial” fiction, as well as their tendency towards reviewing books by male authors more frequently than those by women. How related are these two issues, in your mind? In the ten years since you published your first novel, have you seen any changes in the way that commercial fiction or female authors are covered by major review outlets?
Ah, yes. My ill-advised quest for equality in book reviewing, which began with a guy who does interviews about what kind of hand-sewn shirts he prefers calling me a fake populist, peaked when a quote-unquote literary novelist said I had no right to be reviewed because I “churn out” a book every year and sell them at Target (shocking!), and ended with the editor of a highbrow publishing house making fun of my made-up German in the New York Times. What a fun-filled few months it was.
Honestly, it seemed like such a basic thing to point out: the Times reviews bestselling mysteries and thrillers and genre books that men read and write. Shouldn’t the paper of record cover genre fiction written by and for women, too?
Turns out, the answer is “no!” And also, the answer is “ur boox suck!” And that was just what I was hearing from my family. Being a standard-bearer? Not a lot of fun.
All kidding aside, there’s two issues. One is that genre fiction by women does not get the attention that genre fiction by men does. The second, in my mind related concern, is that literary fiction by women does not get the attention that literary fiction by men does. A woman can write a brilliant literary book, get two great reviews, and maybe, like Mona Simpson, get profiled in the Times’ Styles section, where much will be made about her apparel and her hairstyle. A man can write a brilliant literary book, and the double review is only the beginning—there’s the long, loving magazine profile (the Sunday Times Magazine rarely writes up female authors, and, when it does, instead of the warm embrace, they are held at arm’s length—“The Strange Fiction of Suzanne Collins,” anyone?), the op-ed pieces and book reviews he’ll be asked to contribute, the talk shows and magazine covers he’ll end up on.
After Jodi Picoult and I raised the issue, Slate ran the numbers and found that of the 545 books reviewed between June 29, 2008 and August 27, 2010, 62 percent were by men. Of the 101 books in that period that were reviewed twice, a whopping 71 percent were written by men. A few months later, an organization named VIDA did a study revealing that the ratio of men to women published was even worse in literary magazines and quarterlies like The New Republic and The Paris Review (edited by Mr. Made-to-Measure. Who was quickly profiled in the Times).
The depressing part is that, even after bestselling female authors pointed out the issue, even after the numbers confirmed that, yes, Virginia, there is a problem, the Times hasn’t changed…in fact, the paper seems to have dug in its heels and gotten even worse (double reviews for Elmore Leonard and John le Carre, nothing at all for Terry McMillan; feature on guy who wrote dopey self-help book The Four-Hour Work Week, no profile of Karen Russell, whose Swamplandia! has been one of the most-praised novels this year). When Jennifer Egan won the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times decided that big news wasn’t that she’d won but that Jonathan Franzen had lost. The paper illustrated its story about Egan’s victory with a shot of Franzen, later offering the explanation that it simply couldn’t find a current shot of Egan. Because…its Internet was broken?
It’s a bad situation and one that, I’m sorry to say, seems unlikely to improve in my lifetime. But I have daughters…and, because I have daughters, I don’t think I have the luxury that some of my chick-lit colleagues claimed, the privilege of sitting prettily on the sidelines and saying, “Oh, yes, well, it’s terrible, and of course girl books deserve as much attention as boy books, but I can’t fix it, so who wants to hear about my juice fast?” I’d like to leave the world a better place than I found it, and if one of my girls ends up a writer, I'd like to believe that things will be a little more fair—that there won’t be the immediate assumption that whatever they’ve written is less worthy than it would be if they were men.