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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