Tracy Manaster’s debut novel You Could Be Home by Now (Tyrus Books, 2014) is a book for the New Year if ever there was one.
In the novel, three main characters—a newly divorced retiree, a young couple escaping tragedy, and a teenage girl who has been banished to her grandmother’s for the summer—come together in The Commons, a pristine retirement community in Arizona. All three characters, from whose perspectives the novel is alternatively narrated, have suffered from loss and are struggling to cope. All at different points in their lives, Ben, Seth and Lily provide readers with examples of the myriad (and amusing) ways in which people seek fresh starts in their lives.
In interest of full disclosure, Manaster is a contributor to BookTrib whose debut novel has met with sterling reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, People magazine and many more. We recently sat down with Manaster to talk with her about what she learned about grief, humor, and New Year’s resolutions.
BOOKTRIB: Your novel introduces readers to Ben, a divorcee whose teenaged daughter ran away before the start of the book; Seth and Alison, a young couple coping with the death of a baby; and Lily, a teenager who’s lost her fashion blog and her best friend. What inspired you to write about so much grief and loss?
TRACY MANASTER: I may have backed myself into it, knowing where I wanted the characters to end up. I first had the irritating little grain of sand that was going to become the book after I heard an in-depth exploration of The Villages, [a retirement community] in Florida, on NPR. It seemed to be this fascinating self-contained community but I wondered, where are the workers? Who comes here and supports this community? What would their motivation be? That’s where I got the idea of Seth and Alison coming to this retirement community, which has a very strident ban on residents under 55 years of age. They would come there for a fresh start so they wouldn’t have to be reminded of this appalling loss of their child. So their arc came to me almost fully formed, or at least their driving tension.
With the character of Ben I knew if I was exploring the idea of this self-contained community with this particular focus, I needed an insider. And I came up with his missing child as bookend to Seth and Alison’s suffering. They are two faces of this particular and horrifying grief.
Finally, I liked the way Lily fit in because hers was sort of a petty grief, a selfish grief, and one that I think she knew was petty and selfish. I think what stops Lily from being an absolutely insufferable brat is that she knows that there’s a degree of shallowness to her.
I definitely didn’t set the book up to be a contest as to who suffers more, because that would be a really bad and boring book. But their grief does put them in interesting and tense situations.
BT: Far from boring, the novel is actually hilarious. How did you take a book in which the characters suffer so much and make it so funny?
TM: I’ve found that just about anything that people do, if described closely and accurately, is either very funny or very sad. I think perhaps it was that closeness of description that allowed the book to flip between the two. I also don’t think it would be a funny book in first person. I did try to make the voices quite distinct from each other, and each character has their own fairly bitter sense of humor. But [the third person perspectives enabled me] to have some distance from the tragedy, and let the humor sneak in.
BT: The distance that comes with the third person narrators allows the reader to see the characters for who they really are. None of them are doing very well coping with their losses. Why is it so hard for them?
TM: The emotion that stays with all my characters is shame. Ben is very deeply ashamed of his conduct on the news when he has a rant that goes viral, because it’s foul-mouthed and a little bit crazy. With Alison and Seth, there’s a lot of misallocated shame. In the first chapter, Seth is looking at his wife, who—in the wake of the loss of their child—has taken up running. She’s losing weight, gaining muscle, and Seth describes her as purging the scene of her crime. That’s a misallocation of shame that he can’t look at head on. Finally, Lily, for all her polish, is also embarrassed by the posting on the blog that brought her to Arizona. She didn’t investigate it, she didn’t try to track down who the other girl was who she hurt, and so there’s shame driving her. They are all trying to put the shame behind them, but because they can’t look at it head on, instead they make a tremendous mess.