Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Wednesday April 3, 2024: Maximum Shelf: The Wedding People

Henry Holt & Company: The Wedding People by Alison Espach

Henry Holt & Company: The Wedding People by Alison Espach

Henry Holt & Company: The Wedding People by Alison Espach

Henry Holt & Company: The Wedding People by Alison Espach

The Wedding People

by Alison Espach

Alison Espach's sharp, insightful third novel, The Wedding People, explores the contrast between society's expectations and the often uncomfortable realities that lie beneath. Over the course of one wedding weekend in Newport, R.I., Espach (Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance) examines the complicated interactions between people at a wedding, the clash of public and private personas, and what happens when unexpected events hijack carefully laid plans.

Adjunct professor Phoebe Stone, still reeling from her divorce and the Covid-19 pandemic, is struggling to continue with "normal" life at her university in St. Louis. After encountering her ex-husband and his new paramour (a colleague, and formerly Phoebe's friend) in her makeshift office at work, Phoebe makes a decision: she dons an emerald silk dress and heads to the Cornwall Inn, a posh Newport hotel where she and her husband had once planned to vacation. Instead, Phoebe now intends to end her life, effectively solving the problem of what to do with herself post-marriage, post-infertility diagnosis, post-pandemic. Once there, however, Phoebe realizes the hotel is rented out for a splashy wedding. And when she meets the bride, Lila, in the elevator, her plan begins to fall apart.

Bubbling over with wedding excitement, Lila is puzzled to encounter Phoebe--the one non-wedding element in her perfectly orchestrated weekend. When Phoebe ends up blurting out the truth about her planned suicide, Lila recoils, insisting that Phoebe can't kill herself and therefore ruin the whole wedding weekend. Improbably, Lila takes Phoebe into her confidence, making her part of the multi-day celebrations and, eventually, a member of the wedding party. Although the two women are, on the surface, at wildly different places in their lives, they discover they have a few things in common--and Phoebe's rejection of her previous choices opens the door for Lila to perhaps rethink her choices, too.

Espach's smart, breezy narrative deftly mixes gallows humor and biting social commentary. Her cast of characters includes recognizable types, treated with compassion: socially awkward academics who don't know what to say to a grieving colleague; Lila's brassy, sequin-wearing mother who has her own set of insecurities; and Lila's groom, Gary, a widowed single dad struggling with the implications (for himself and his tween daughter) of marrying again. Although Lila's friends and family are (mostly) genuinely happy for her, they all come to the wedding carrying their own baggage, and Phoebe bears witness to some of that baggage--poignant, funny, embarrassing--throughout the weekend.

Through the lens of Phoebe's struggles, Espach illuminates several universal truths, starting with how people tend to behave at weddings, falling into roles they may not even fit into, but which nevertheless feel prescribed by their relationship (or lack of it) to the bride and groom. As Phoebe observes and participates in toasts, the bachelorette party, and the rehearsal dinner, she watches the wedding people play their roles (or chafe at them), and glimpses their emotions--joy, frustration, grief, boredom--peeking through. Espach also explores the complications of family dynamics, such as the angst and grief radiating off Gary's daughter, Mel (nicknamed Juice); the patronizing attitude of Gary's straitlaced older sister, Marla; and Gary's deep bond with his dead wife's brother, Jim. Although several guests begin by admitting difficult truths only to Phoebe, they (and she) start to wonder if they can be more honest with themselves and one another.

In the rarefied world of the Cornwall (and thanks to the concierge, Pauline), Phoebe can put aside her material worries for a while, leaving her free (or forced) to focus on her emotional landscape. She reflects on her marriage to a fellow professor; the deep loneliness of her childhood as the only daughter of a widowed father; and the ways she's worked hard to fulfill certain dreams, only to recognize that effort and desire might not be enough to create her picture-perfect life. Though she's sometimes appalled at Lila's casual assumption that the world revolves solely around her concerns, Phoebe also finds herself impressed by Lila's sheer force of will--and compelled by this real-life unfolding of the marriage plot that has always appealed to her in fiction and film. Espach draws deft parallels between Phoebe's love of weddings, Lila's impending nuptials, and Phoebe's current crossroads in life; even the elegant Newport setting echoes the themes of polished exteriors versus an authentic identity with (no doubt) a few cracks.

By the end of the narrative, several characters have made decisions that may upend the traditional sequence of events. But regardless of how the wedding unfolds, Phoebe must eventually decide if she's going to carry out her original plan or continue with her future, as blank and uncertain as it feels. Finding herself "beyond the traditional plot points of a life," she has to choose whether and how to keep writing a story containing a whole load of unknowns.

Smart, often sad, and laugh-so-you-don't-cry hilarious, The Wedding People is a wry, entertaining meditation on the complexities of adulthood, the surprising ways people can change, and the truths (and lies) we tell ourselves. --Katie Noah Gibson

Holt, $28.99, hardcover, 384p., 9781250899576, July 30, 2024

Henry Holt & Company: The Wedding People by Alison Espach

Alison Espach: Honesty vs. Expectations

Alison Espach
(photo: Rachel Turner)

Alison Espach is the author of the novels The Adults and Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance. Her short stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's, Vogue, Joyland, the Lincoln Center Theater Review, Salon, the Daily Beast, Five Chapters, and other places. She lives in Rhode Island, where she teaches at Providence College. In her third novel, The Wedding People (Holt, July 30, 2024), people's expectations are upended in bittersweet and funny ways over the course of a wedding weekend.

What was the inspiration for The Wedding People?

The book had several inspirations. The first is simply having been to a lot of weddings. I remember one wedding I attended as a single person in my mid-30s, and being there, uncoupled while everyone else was seemingly coupled, had a striking effect on me. Alongside the sudden embarrassment I felt was the serious pressure not to show anyone. To laugh and dance and show everyone I was having a good time, and not betray any cracks in the façade.

I thought it was curious that a wedding ritual, and all the associated activities, could have such a profound effect on a person's psychological and mental state. That's what happens at weddings, right? The pressure to be a certain way is so strong that we comply. I started thinking: What if I were honest about that? What would happen? How would I--how would we--transform?

In graduate school, I used to work at weddings. My job was to stand by the photo booths; they attracted a lot of people who were having a miserable time. Once they found out I wasn't a guest, I could see them open up. They thought, This is a free space. I heard exactly why they were not having a good time at this wedding, and what was wrong in their family and in their life. It always struck me that that kind of intimacy could be created between two strangers. So I thought: What would happen if people were actually honest at a wedding? And who would they be honest to? That brought me to the character of Phoebe, and the way she walks into this wedding and ultimately changes the way the wedding unfolds.

Phoebe has had a difficult few years, including infertility struggles, the Covid-19 pandemic, and her divorce. Why does she choose this moment to hop on a plane with the intention of ending it all?

There is a moment when Phoebe realizes there's no going backward. Some small part of her was holding on to the idea that things would be okay, or that everything in her life would be fixed. And she wakes up and realizes that's not the case. It's a profound realization: there's no going back, there's only going forward. But she can't imagine going forward.

For most of her life, Phoebe was very driven and had clear ideas of what she wanted to make happen. She's now faced with the reality of those things not happening--and her effort and desire and hard work not being enough to create the reality she wanted. She realizes that certain dreams are over, and certain things are not going to happen. That's a hard thing to realize, and a sad moment in a person's life. And there's also the struggle to figure out what's next.

On the surface, Phoebe and Lila (the bride) are at wildly different points in their lives: one in crisis, one in celebration. What draws them together?

I think it simply is that they're total strangers, and yet they're experiencing something quite similar. They both say out loud, This is the most important week of my life. They're both at moments of real transition, deciding to do or become something that we think of as rather permanent. They're both in these heightened states--different, but to the same degree.

For Lila, her wedding is all she can see, and the stakes there feel so high to her. Especially for the bride, there are a lot of expectations around a wedding: having to be upbeat and happy all the time. When Lila encounters someone who is not at her wedding, and has no expectations of her, that's a huge release for her. She realizes: I can be my true self with this person.

The same is true for Phoebe. She thinks: Here is a person so outside of my life, who doesn't know what I'm going through, and I can be honest with her, too. That honesty was something they both needed at this time. What keeps them talking, what keeps them in conversation with each other throughout the book, is the freedom they provide each other.

It feels strange to say that a novel whose premise includes suicide is funny, but this one is! Can you talk about the use of humor in the narrative?

I tend to default to gallows humor in life and in fiction. If something awful is happening, I think my brain is desperately scrambling for a way to make it lighter, and find a way to make myself laugh, or even chuckle. That's the beauty or the good thing that can be wrung from whatever is happening. I also like to know what I'm dealing with up front, in fiction or film or TV. When you start in an awful place, you're thinking: Where do we go from here? You can't just stay there. A kind of optimistic narrative arc is baked in.

When you're asking people to read a novel, you're also asking them to endure something, to stick with you for a few hundred pages. So where do you bring them? Where do you go? Often you're trying to find moments of release, moments of lightness, and that can come with humor. That's been really important for me in my life, and my own times of healing. I want the reader to experience that movement from low to high, or from heavy to light. And I'm often amazed at how quickly it can happen. It's profound when you realize: laughter is part of this, too.

In many ways, the story is about the contrast between being what people expect us to be and being who we really are.

I'm always charmed and surprised when people turn out to be different than I expected. You meet someone and you make a quick judgment; you form an impression. And in life, I am almost always wrong, and I'm really delighted by that. That's also the fun of fiction: watching a character show up on page one and by the last page, turn out to be someone completely different. That was an important arc for the book, not just for the main characters, but for some of the side characters as well.

I think it's hard to know the difference between who we really are and who we're supposed to be, especially when we're young, and developing. It's only later that we can look back and see how much of our development was guided by wanting to meet expectations or please various people. This wedding week provides Lila and Phoebe the chance to ask some of those questions. At times, that can come with self-judgment--the notion of what was I thinking? I wanted to get them to a softer, kinder place. And I wanted them both to realize: there's still time to be who you want to be. There's still time to make decisions in a different way. --Katie Noah Gibson

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