Tag Archives: debut novel


When You Read This by Mary Adkins is a modern epistolary novel told through emails, texts and blog posts. Smith Simonyi is a PR executive who has recently lost his assistant, Iris, to cancer. Iris had written a blog for a community for dying people, and he discovers after her death that she wanted him to have her blog published. He reaches out to publishers to gauge interest in her blog, while also starting up a correspondence with her sister, Jade, who is still deeply grieving and unwilling to open her sister’s writing up to the public.

Most of When You Read This is made up of emails between Jade and Smith, blog posts by Iris, and correspondence between Smith and his clueless college student intern and his increasingly frustrated clients. As Jade and Smith get to know each other better and Smith confronts some of his own issues, including his relationship with his paralyzed mother and his gambling addiction, the reader also gets an appreciation of what Iris meant to both of them and the guilt they each feel about her death.

When You Read This is a pretty fast read. It’s a little quirky and at times pretty funny (I don’t usually laugh out loud when I read, but I did several times while reading it), but also quite poignant. Iris’ blog entries are honest and sad, as she comes to terms with the end of her life at age 39. There is also a voyeuristic element to the book, as you know you’re reading things you’re not supposed to be privy to.

When You Read This is a realistic look at grief and relationships, with a modern, updated feel, thanks to its format. I picked it up at the recommendation of a few bloggers and I am glad I did.


All the Happiness You Deserve by Michael Piafsky tracks vignettes from one man’s life from boyhood to grandfatherhood through short chapters – some only as long as 2 pages – that cover a particular event or short period in his life.  The story jumps from the narrator’s painful childhood (his father is gruff and often mean, and his mother and sister disappear for 2 years before returning without an explanation), to his years in college in Boston, a move to Seattle, a career in finance in New York, a disgraceful exit to the midwest, a daughter, a failed marriage and retirement. Scotty’s is an ordinary, unglorious life, with a few peaks and a lot of valleys.

Piafsky’s writing is anything but ordinary, though. He is one gorgeous writer. It took me quite a while to get through All the Happiness You Deserve because I didn’t want to skim through anything in this book. It is full of small, intimate details that convey the narrator’s humanity and really make him known to the reader. He can be maddening, especially as he messes up his life over and over. But Piafsky’s writing is just such a pleasure. Interestingly, All The Happiness You Deserve is written in the second person, which I don’t always love, but it works here.

Did I mention that this is a debut novel?

I don’t think All The Happiness You Deserve got that much attention when it came out. That’s a shame. This unique, beautiful book deserves a wider audience. It’s not an uplifting read – in fact it can be downright sad – but it reminded me why I love reading, and why I am in awe of good writers.

Give it a try.

THE ARRIVALS by Meg Mitchell Moore

The Arrivals, Meg Mitchell Moore’s debut novel, is a quiet book without a lot of drama or action, but a satisfying one nevertheless. The Arrivals is about the summer when sixtysomethings Ginny and William find that their three adult children, Lillian, Stephen and Rachel, have all converged on their serene Vermont home. Lillian is escaping her troubled marriage, with her three year-old daughter and infant son in tow; Stephen came for a quick weekend with his pregnant wife, but complications have put her on bedrest, trapped in the house; and Rachel is adrfit in New York City after a breakup.

I liked The Arrivals. It’s about family relationships and the changing dynamics that are introduced when children become adults and grandchildren and spouses enter the picture. It’s also about unconditional love from parents to children, and how that love can be tested and reaffirmed over time. Again, this isn’t a dramatic book; I read some complaints on Goodreads that not much actually happens. That’s true, but it didn’t bother me. The book was more about the smaller moments – almost vignettes – that make up a summer shared by too many people in the same small space. It was very realistic.

I liked this quote from the almost-end of the book:

[Lillian] recognized that they were all battling – all of them, everyone in the family – to have their needs met. Ginny, William, Rachel, Stephen, Jane, all of them. Even little Philip. Clashing, every day, primal forces pitted against one another.

In a lot of ways, that’s what big family gatherings can be – battles to get individual needs met, and the corresponding disappointments and resentments when they are not.

I am impressed that The Arrivals is Meg Mitchell Moore’s first novel. Her writing is assured and smooth, and the book flowed nicely. I recommend this one to fans of domestic fiction – it’s an easy but satisfying read.

FTC disclaimer: this was one of my purchases from The Strand, bought with my own cash.

Q&A With Susan Barr-Toman, Author of WHEN LOVE WAS CLEAN UNDERWEAR

First things first. Congratulations to the winner of Meg Wolitzer's The Uncoupling, which I reviewed on Monday: Tawnya at Drawn to the Flame!

Earlier this week I reviewed an excellent debut novel by Susan Barr-Toman called When Love Was Clean Underwear. Susan was kind enough to answer some questions for me, and her answers were very interesting to read. (I recommend reading them now, then reading the book, and then coming back to read them again. Just don't read the spoiler question before you read the book!)

Here is the Q&A. Thanks, Susan!

Q:  Do you know someone like Lucy? What was your inspiration for her character?

A: I do know people like Lucy, and I have had many people come up to me after readings to tell me the same. When I was writing the novel, people kept saying, “you have to make Lucy younger,” or “something terribly must happen for her to be a virgin at 30.”  People assume everyone is like them or like characters on sitcoms.  There are people who live with their parents.  There are people who hold on to their virginity for many reasons.  In this case Lucy is a practicing Catholic, and thanks to her mother she also has poor self-esteem.  And as you know, her mother has issues.

However, this is not an autobiographical novel.  My mother is alive and well and never smoked a cigarette in her life.  I was not a virgin at 30.  I was married at 27, and no man is that patient. 

Q: The South Philadelphia neighborhood that Lucy lives in plays a large role in your book. How did you pick the setting?

A: Actually South Philadelphia was the inspiration for the novel.  I heard this story about a young couple who weren’t from South Philadelphia, but had bought a row home there.  Since the house had been in the family for generations and had not been updated, they bought it for a low price with the plan to gut it.  What they didn’t know is that they had bought the house of a deceased woman whose sisters lived on either side.  So they were constantly harassed by the sisters each time they changed anything. 

I began to wonder who could move into that house and be intimidated by these women. That’s where Lucy came from.  She’s a woman who grew up in a nearby neighborhood and understands tradition.  She has lived in the same house her whole life, the house her father was raised in, and only moves out against her will.

I wanted to capture the family feel of the neighborhood – the nosiness, the unsolicited advice, but also, the eagerness to know, to help. 
Q: I am in awe of people who write novels – it seems so overwhelming to me. When do you write, and how do you stay disciplined? How long did When Love Was Clean Underwear take to write?

A: I began writing in earnest when I was pregnant with my first child and I took a continuing education class called “Write Your Novel Now.”  At the beginning of the class, the instructor asked why each of us was there.  My reason – I didn’t want to be a stage mom.  I’d always wanted to write and always found reasons not to.  I didn’t want to be one of those people who pushed her child to fulfill her dreams.  I wanted to be able to say, pursue your dreams, follow your bliss, and actually be an example of that. 

WLWCU was written when I had two young children at home. In the beginning, I would write during my son’s morning nap, and he was a wonderfully consistent napper.  During his afternoon nap, I would take care of the household tasks.  When he switched to one nap a day, let’s just say, we didn’t have company over much. 

There was something about having that limited time to get it done.  Before kids, I always thought I needed large spans of time to do any kind of real work.  For most of us, those long spans never come, and you have to learn to squeeze in the work.   When I was expecting my daughter, I was very motivated to finish a draft of the novel, knowing that with two my time would be even more limited.

All and all, it took about eight years.
Q: Are you writing a second novel now?

A: Yes.  I’m working on my second novel and hope to finish it this year.  It’s the story of a friendship between two couples who met in college.  Ten years later as they are about to start families, secrets come out and loyalties shift. 

I also continue to write short stories. My story “Town Watch” will be published in an anthology called South Philly Fiction this fall.   But really, I do venture into other parts of Philly in my fiction.

Q: There are so few redeemable characters in the book, yet it was such a pleasure to read. Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about human nature?

A: I don’t see the characters as unredeemable, so much as flawed. Lucy is so malleable and the other characters recognize that.  They see an opportunity to turn her into what they think she should be, into what they need her to be. Flawed as they are, each of them wants to be loved and to love.  Just like Lucy.  Just like all of us.  So yes, I am optimistic about human nature. 
Q: ****Spoiler Alert!*** OK, I have to know… Tony or Jack? Or does Lucy reject them both? ***Spoiler Alert!***

A: At the end of the novel, Lucy says she will call Jack the next day.  So it isn’t over.  When I was in the midst of writing the novel, I wasn’t sure exactly how it would end, but I knew Lucy would be alone and it would be a good thing.

But remember, Tony is upfront about what he wants, why he loves Lucy.  He pursues her.  Jack knew Lucy for years and didn’t do anything until Marge died.  Still it’s Lucy, Lucy! who has to make the first move.  So Jack needs to work on being worthy.  Of course, who wouldn’t love a man who wants to do home improvement projects and is a great kisser?



Barr toman I recently finished a debut novel called When Love Was Clean Underwear by Susan Barr-Toman. I found it very hard to believe that this was her first novel – it was very good, and she is an excellent writer.

When Love Was Clean Underwear is about Lucy Pescitelli, a thirty year-old woman living with her mother in South Philadelphia. Her mother is sour, domineering, and manipulative, so much so that she convinces Lucy to euthanize her as she is at the end stages of lung cancer. That event jumpstarts the book, which follows Lucy in the months after her mother's death as she tries to make a life for herself on her own.

This is just a beautifully written book. Barr-Toman's writing is understated and quiet (like Lucy), but she tells an engaging, suspenseful story about a belated coming-of age that I couldn't wait to finish. Lucy is passive and timid, but Barr-Toman manages to craft a juggernaut of a book, thanks to witty witing and a strong cast of supporting characters that includes Lucy's bitter, dominant older sister Anne, her spinster neighbors and two suitors. These characters are keenly observed and richly drawn.

I really can't say enough good things about this book. Susan Barr-Toman is a first-time author who worked with a small publisher with no marketing budget. I'd love to help get the word out more about When Love Was Clean Underwear – please give it a try! You will not be disappointed. And you will have a hard time believing that this Barr-Toman's first novel.

Susan Barr-Toman was kind enough to answer some questions for me about her book, her writing habits, and the South Philly setting. I will post them later this week – they are a lot of fun to read.

Thanks to Susan Barr-Toman for the review copy of When Love Was Clean Underwear. (Yeah, FTC, that's where I got it.)