Recently I traveled with my husband to New Orleans, where his step-grandfather was living out the last few days of his ninety-four-year life under hospice care in his immaculately appointed condominium overlooking the Mississippi River. Among the folks gathered to celebrate Mike’s life and usher in his peaceful passing were a number of cousins, second cousins, and thrice-removed octogenarians that I may or may not have met previously at a wedding or bar mitzvah.
As it does when small talk beckons, the topic of my job arose (until recently, I was an editor at a New York publishing house), and I gamely talked books with anyone who seemed to be grasping for conversation that didn’t involve death, dying, funerals, or what quantity of bagels would appease the gathered masses.
An older woman in a smart pants suit sidled up to me like a long-lost sorority sister, letting me know she favored serious nonfiction, the likes of Erik Larson or Doris Kearns Goodwin (“Though her last book,” she told me in a conspiratorial aside, “was just so-so.”) I recommended a personal favorite, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a book I’d wanted to publish myself but had lost at auction. I also let her know gently that my then-company published DKG, so maybe ease off on the critique of The Bully Pulpit.
I’ve been with my husband for sixteen years, and fifteen of those have been spent, for me, as a book editor. I’m a Yankee; my in-laws are from Louisiana. I’m a shiksa; they’re card-carrying members of the Tribe. I love John Irving; they tend toward John Grisham. But regardless of our differences, my husband’s large extended and blended family has always been welcoming, and I’ve often found myself connecting to them through books.
When a dark, literary novel I edited called So Much Pretty got a flat-out rave in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, I heard from my mother-in-law immediately, telling me she’d run out to buy a copy (a full price hardcover, mind you) at the local Barnes & Noble. She followed up with a truly touching, rapturous note about how much she enjoyed the read and enumerating the friends she’d recommended it to. My company could always count on at least n+5 copies sold of most of my books thanks to my mother-in-law.
Then there’s my husband’s stepmother, aka my second mother-in-law, who’s just as keen on getting book recommendations from me, and whose taste runs a little more commercial. To her, I’ve suggested novels like The Rosie Project, a lighthearted romantic comedy that she devoured on a recent family vacation. A couple weeks later, she sent me an adorable photo of my father-in-law enjoying Rosie too, in the sun on their back porch—seventy-five degrees in New Orleans and a frigid thirty-five in Brooklyn. (Pretty sure they’re un-subtly trying to convince us to move there.)
And both of my mothers-in-law spread the word for a memoir I edited called Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman. That one eventually made its way to several aunts-in-law and even to Cynthia, the ninety-something matriarch whose bookcase I would peruse when I came to pay my respects to her dying husband, and whose copy of Smart Women, Foolish Choices I would immediately and shamelessly Instagram.
Back in Mike and Cynthia’s condo in the Crescent City, I listened to my mother-in-law, her sister-in-law, and her sister-in-law’s daughter (my step-cousin-in-law—are you following all this?) debate the relative merits of The Girl on the Train (two for; one against). To me, it doesn’t hold a candle to Gone Girl, but as an editor, I know how rare it is to publish a runaway bestseller and I’m always happy when my fellow booksmiths have a hit on their hands.
I regaled my husband’s cosmopolitan foodie step-cousin with praise for Chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir Blood, Bones & Butter which I’d recently, er . . . devoured. On the fiction side, I suggested that a step-aunt pick up Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. (I hadn’t gotten to that one yet myself, but I figured three months on the bestseller list, a National Book Award nomination, and a Pulitzer Prize were pretty solid indicators.) And I offered a final recommendation to the well-dressed lady of a certain age who’d told me she favored serious nonfiction: Bettyville, a memoir by my friend and former colleague George Hodgman, which I’d started reading on the plane to New Orleans and would finish on the flight home after the funeral.
Bettyville is about a grown son coming home to care for his elderly mother in the twilight of her life. It’s a beautiful, complicated, frustrating, wry and tragicomic story that perfectly encapsulates the importance and incorrigibility of family.
And whether that family comes by birth or by marriage, there’s nothing like a good book to bring us all together and pass the time until the bagels arrive.