Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Thursday, February 1, 2023: Maximum Shelf: Everything's Fine

Simon & Schuster: Everything's Fine by Cecilia Rabess

Simon & Schuster: Everything's Fine by Cecilia Rabess

Simon & Schuster: Everything's Fine by Cecilia Rabess

Simon & Schuster: Everything's Fine by Cecilia Rabess

Everything's Fine

by Cecilia Rabess

Everything's Fine is a love story but not necessarily a romance; there are no guaranteed "happily ever afters" to be found in the pages of Cecilia Esther Rabess's complex, thought-provoking debut novel. It asks big questions about where love fits amidst race, politics, identity and values in the lead-up to the 2016 United States presidential election.

After graduating from college, Jess has landed something of a dream job at Goldman Sachs, with a paycheck large enough to cover rent and her student loan debt and still buy fancy shoes and go out with girlfriends. And along with debt-capacity models and credit-risk analyses, federal fund rates and LIBOR (the London Inter-Bank Offered Rate) and a key card that doesn't work in the company gym, there is Josh: Jess's former classmate, now assigned to be her mentor in her first months on the job.

As one of the only women and one of the only Black people (and definitely the only Black woman) working in the "bullpen" of financial associates, Jess finds Josh all too secure in his place as a white male in the office, in the company, in the world, to ever be approachable. But the two can't seem to keep out of one another's orbit: first appearing side by side in the student paper following the historical election of Barack Obama in 2008 (and representing very opposite opinions on his success); arguing about reverse racism and affirmative action in a course on Supreme Court topics; antagonizing each other loudly over cheap drinks at a local dive bar they both show up to with their friends. She is Black, liberal, constantly trying to prove herself and solidify her place in a world shaped by whiteness and white supremacy. He is white and conservative, and assured that he is always in the right, that everything will work out for him. They are wildly, entirely different. And yet there's something that binds them.

The antagonism between the two is palpable--first of the political variety, and ultimately, a kind of uneasy friendship underwritten by a decidedly sexual tension. In what reads like the ultimate take on the "opposites attract" trope, Jess and Josh become an item and fall deeply, madly in love, alternating between verbal sparring and intense passion in a relationship that seems to work, even when it doesn't. "Sometimes you make me really, really, really mad," Jess tells Josh after he utters yet another comment that downplays the role of race in her experience as a Black woman. "But other than that, he is perfect, they are perfect, she has never been more in love, everything's totally fine."

This is where Rabess shines, building nuanced, multi-layered characters in an equally nuanced, multi-layered relationship, two people who are seemingly incompatible and yet undeniably work together... most of the time. Within this incredibly complex relationship, Everything's Fine becomes more than the love story at its center, as Rabess probes into deep, messy questions of race, politics and personal values--and the ways these appear within Jess and Josh's relationship, particularly as the political landscape shifts in the tense lead-up to the 2016 election. Jess herself questions their compatibility time and time again:

" 'I'm Black, you're white. I'm liberal, you're conservative....' Said that way it almost sounds like poetry. Opposites attract. The best kind of love story. But that's not quite right.... They're not really opposites. More like two people playing for different teams."

Is there something inherently incompatible about this arrangement? Between a liberal and a conservative? A Black woman and a white man? And what of the larger context, a country increasingly polarized and political parties with increasingly disparate values? "Love conquers all, except geography, and history, and contemporary sociopolitical reality."

Rabess asks all of this, but--it's important to note--does not offer easy answers to these questions. Everything's Fine is as complex and complicated as the world it reflects, messy and interconnected and imperfect in the most realistic ways. The result is a love story, as noted, without a clear happy ending; not only is a happily-ever-after not guaranteed here, it's not even clear what a happy ending would be. The two staying together? Or splitting up? Finding a compromise, or converting to the same political party? What's realistic, what's believable, what's acceptable and what's desired, what will make them happy in the end--the answers to each will vary depending on the reader and what they bring to the story, their context and perspective and beliefs. What is guaranteed is that Everything's Fine will leave every reader thinking more deeply about all of these questions in the way the best of fiction does, pondering Jess and Josh's story long past the last page and also asking themselves about love and race and politics and how they intersect in a messy world. --Kerry McHugh

Simon & Schuster, $27.99, hardcover, 336p., 9781982187705, June 6, 2023

Simon & Schuster: Everything's Fine by Cecilia Rabess

Cecilia Rabess: Unlikely Love in Divisive Times

(photo: kooshgraphics)

Cecilia Rabess's debut novel, Everything's Fine (Simon & Schuster, June 6, 2023), explores the unlikely and complicated love between a liberal Black woman and her conservative white male colleague in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Rabess has worked as a data scientist at Google and a financial associate at Goldman Sachs, and her nonfiction has appeared in various publications, among them McSweeneys, FiveThirtyEight, Fast Company and FlowingData. She lives in San Francisco.

What would you say Everything's Fine is about?

In a sentence, it is about two very different young people who fall passionately, reluctantly, complicatedly in love.

When the two of them meet, there is an immediate and obvious tension, which is what powers the story: this idea of two people who are attracted to one another trying to navigate the tightrope of their differences, but the stakes for Jess are clearly much higher than for Josh--what's "politics" to him is deeply personal to her. That is the central tension of the novel.

Beyond that, Everything's Fine is a coming-of-age story about a young Black woman whose relationship with her blackness is constantly being tested--by her own insecurities and by the man that she loves. It's also a bit of a workplace novel, about the compromises required, personally and professionally, to survive in cutthroat corporate environments. And it's also an examination of race and politics and identity and the insidious nature of white supremacy.

The novel reveals itself slowly, I don't think it truly tells you what it's about until the very last word. It also intentionally asks more questions than it answers. I wanted the book to accommodate different readers' different perspectives, biases, hopes, fears, frustrations, etc., and so in that sense it intentionally reads like a Rorschach test--which complicates the experience of reading the book, certainly, but I hope makes it a much more interesting and rewarding experience, too.

You've worked as a data scientist and at Goldman Sachs (where your character Jess also works). How does your own experience show up in Jess's story?

In ways that will probably feel familiar to other Black women who have spent a lot of time in predominantly white spaces: the feeling of being overlooked and underestimated, or like you have to work twice as hard for half as much, or like you don't really ever get the benefit of the doubt, like you're invisible but also somehow super-conspicuous. All of these feelings show up at various points in the novel and were informed by my own experiences. Otherwise, even though I do share a few key biographical details with Jess, our stories are pretty different.

The novel takes place in the years leading up to the 2016 election. When did you start writing? And did the ever-shifting context of American politics in that time period change what you'd envisioned as you wrote?

I started writing in 2018... a lot has happened since then. As you note, the cultural landscape is ever-shifting, the zeitgeist changes so quickly, the discourse is incredibly dynamic. So just to remember where we were in 2018: it was two years post-election, but I think we were still processing. People were trying to make sense of everything that had happened. On the left, in particular, I think a lot of people felt like they knew who we were as a nation, and then suddenly felt like they didn't. People were trying to understand. This rhetoric of "reaching across the aisle" took hold, which was frustrating because it seemed to minimize the very real threats people were feeling to their safety and security as Americans, but at the same time it was trying to get at the root of something. People were looking for answers. I certainly was. And out of that reckoning, this book was born.

I didn't actually set out to write a political novel per se. To be honest, when I started writing all I had in mind was a love story. I've always loved a good love story, but even the best ones can often exist in binary: bubblegum rom-com on the one hand or war-torn lovers and somebody dies at the end. I really wanted to write something in between, something that felt real and nuanced and contemporary. Something that celebrated as much as it subverted time-honored romance tropes. But I wasn't completely sure what that would look like. I didn't really have a plot or characters or a setting. Then I read an article in New York magazine called "Donald Trump Is Destroying My Marriage" that kind of blew my mind. I just could not imagine in our polarized society how these opposite-side-of-the-aisle pairings existed, much less were thriving (spoiler alert: they weren't). So trying to imagine what such a relationship could look like was my way into the story. It allowed me to tackle some of the questions about race and class and politics that were haunting me, but also, I hope, to write a smart, funny love story.

Initially, I was simply trying to work out how these two people could work. How they might find their way to one another, what their dynamic would look like, what particular conditions would need to exist for their story to make sense. When I started writing I conceived of the story as a will they/won't they. But as the cultural landscape shifted, as we became more polarized, as the threats to our democracy loomed larger and larger, it ultimately became a should they/shouldn't they.

That shift from will they/won't they to should they/shouldn't they feels monumental. Even after I finished the book, I still wasn't sure if I was rooting for them to end up together or apart at the end, and which version would constitute a "happy ending" to their unlikely romance. Or if I even wanted them to get a happy ending!

Everything's Fine is a love story and it's funny (I hope!), but it's not quite a romantic comedy. It's a novel about first love and figuring out who you are and who you want to be and who you have the right to be... but it's not quite a coming-of-age story. And it's about first jobs and financial precarity and money, but it's not fully a workplace novel, either. It's none of these things, because really it's all of these things. --Kerry McHugh

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