In Over Coffee, writer, reader, and haphazard reviewer Angela Lashbrook chats with authors about their recent books, and quizzes them on their hot breakfast takes.
I feel blessed to have tapped out of 2020 in a state of joy, but I owe it to Julia Claiborne Johnson’s delightful, warm, and most importantly, funny novel Better Luck Next Time. Perhaps a novel about divorce — for that’s where the “better luck next time idea” comes in — ought not to be so amusing, but it’s a testament to Johnson’s lively wit and sparkling sense of humor that she wrote about what is theoretically a dismal topic and revealed it to be, in fact, an opportunity to find absurdity, joy, and, yes, love.
It’s 1938 in Reno, Nevada, and Ward Bennett is driving a stagecoach to the airport to pick up Nina, an heiress on her third divorce. Ward works at a divorce ranch, where wealthy women (mostly) stay for six weeks to establish residency in the state, after which they will be able to file for a relatively easy divorce. Tagging along for the ride is Emily, a runaway wife from San Francisco who, unlike Nina, isn’t so sure she’s making the right decision.
Over the next six weeks, Nina, Ward, Emily, and a handful of other characters at the ranch fall in love, split up, get drunk, dress up as fairies and donkeys, cuddle kittens, ride in tiny airplanes, and have a hell of a good time doing all of it. But among the laughter and gaiety are moments of heartbreak, disappointment, and struggle. Nina, despite all her swagger and confidence, contains more questions than answers. Emily is wracked with anxiety about splitting from her cheating husband, and inconsolable over her fraying relationship with her adolescent daughter. Ward copes with a betrayal in his past that led to the dissolution of any sense of stability in his own family; all the while, he has to grin and bear the unintentional classism and ignorance among the guests at the ranch.
“That’s right,” Mary Louise said. “He was a cheater. Like all men are.”
Reflexively, the two of them turned their eyes on me. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“Oh, you don’t count, Ward,” Mary Louise said. “I meant real men, like Emily’s husband.”
I finished Better Luck Next Time feeling like my heart was going to swell out of my chest. “If I learned anything in my time at the Flying Leap it was that passion in any relationship could be so fleeting that any evidence of it should be celebrated, not laughed at,” says Ward, and this, to me, is the overarching emotional theme of the novel: that we should hold love and joy close, because they’re never guaranteed for any length of time. That happiness and fulfillment come in a wide variety of forms, many of them unpredictable and, from the outside, unusual. That laughter can be found almost anywhere — even outside your divorce lawyer’s office.
Publisher’s Weekly writes in a starred review that “Johnson’s novel soars.” “This is a story that will stay with you for a long time,” says Bookpage. I chatted with Julia Claiborne Johnson about her book, out this week, and about the breakfast she plans to eat in celebration of the end of the pandemic (whenever that is).
What inspired you to write this story about this strange and delightful place and time in history — 1930s divorce/dude ranches in Reno, Nevada?
In real life, as it happens, my father worked as a fake cowboy on a divorce ranch outside Reno during the Depression. I don’t know how long he worked there, or which ranch he worked on. He told a couple of funny stories about his time in Nevada, but otherwise he really didn’t talk about it much. Had I been smart, I would’ve asked more questions while he was still alive. It was just a thing dads did, I must have thought. I was probably grown before I realized this was not a job most people’s fathers had.
After I divorced my first husband and married the second one (who I’ve now been with for more than thirty years and plan to stay with until death divides us, if he’ll let me), I thought about this whole divorce business more and more. My father, who grew up on a dairy farm in West Tennessee, had a failed early marriage, too. To a wealthy woman whose name I don’t know. I’d be willing to bet he met her while he was working on that ranch. How would they have met otherwise? Also, he was her second husband of six, which suggests she might have been the sort of wealthy woman who found herself in Reno.
My father is long gone, alas — he was born in 1916, and I was the product of his second, much later marriage, which lasted for the rest of his life. The older I got, the more interesting that whole divorce-ranch business started seeming to me, though the world at large seems to have forgotten about this phenomenon. When I went to the Nevada Historical Society in Reno to look for some trace of my father’s time there, I didn’t find any mention of him. Which honestly didn’t surprise me, given the transient nature of the job and the fact that he was really no more than a glorified ranch hand. But it did help me understand better what his time there might have been like
From the Bottom-in-Midsummers-Night-Dream costume to the fairy outfit to the cowboy getup, many characters in Better Luck Next Time spend part of the story in costume, disguised as something other than what they are. What role do costumes and make-believe play in the novel?
I’m not sure they’re always playing at being something they aren’t. I thought or hoped anyway, that those costumes were working more symbolically. Nina, for example, loves that fairy costume, and by the time the story is all over she’s something of a fairy godmother. And that papier mâche ass’s head that gets passed from character to character sets up one of my favorite jokes in the book: When a child of one of the would-be divorcées puts it on, Nina comments drily that the kid is looking more like her father every day.
What’s also great about wearing masks, too, is that it seems to unloose a person’s id. (Or at least they did, in the Before Times, when everybody had to start wearing masks to protect.) On a practical level, also, I needed masks to disguise the identity of the characters from time to time — two of the characters entering a dance early on in the in masks, for example — so I had to figure out a way to work masks in.
Let me tell you how those particular ones got chosen. When I was starting out, I wanted to name one of my characters after a bookseller who’d been particularly lovely to me. Back then, Portia — a name I encountered first in a Shakespeare play — borrowed her roommate’s car to help me move my son into his dorm room in Chicago. I thought naming a character for her would be a particularly nice way to show Portia my gratitude. Then I started thinking about my son’s costume when he played Bottom in A Midsummer Nights Dream in high school. Add to that a photograph I came across from a college production of some Shakespeare play put on at the college in Reno, and everything fell into place. Midsummer Nights Dream, of course, is about an idyll away from regular society. Perfect! So my characters steal costumes from the local college, and those costumes go from sight gags to sad metaphors by the time the story’s over. It’s sort of nutty how these things root in your imagination, isn’t it?
Most of the main characters have their own mode of transport that seem integral to their identities. Ward has Dumpling, the sweet old horse; Emily has the Pierce-Arrow: Nina, her airplane; Hugh the bicycle. Talk about how movement and transportation give definition to the characters and their personal journeys.
Before you said that, I hadn’t really thought about them being linked so much to their characters, except in the case of Nina and Ward. Nina is a woman born just a little before her time, so it makes sense that she’d be an aviatrix. As for Ward and Dumpling, it’s important to note that Dumpling wasn’t just any horse. He’s a gelding. Ward, you see, isn’t supposed to get involved romantically with the ladies on the ranch. So.
What I did love about all those modes of conveyance was the way each showed how quickly civilization was moving forward in the early part of the 20th century. The first chapter of my book starts with Ward saying, “I drove the stagecoach to the airport to pick up Nina.” And there’s another part, much later, when Ward says “A horse you might have gotten hung for stealing fifty years earlier was all but being given away in 1938.” Those juxtapositions really blew my mind.
Breakfast q: What’s the breakfast or brunch experience you’re the most excited for once things return to “normal’?
That’s easy — walking to the place up the block from me and having brunch with my friends. I am extremely gregarious, normally, but when I’m deep in a book, I cut myself off from society entirely — I don’t go anywhere or do anything, or even so much as chat on the phone because it takes me out of my creative bubble. Better Luck Next Time took three years to write, and in March, when I finished my final edits and was ready to emerge again, the whole world had gone into lockdown.
Better Luck Next Time is available now from Custom House. Buy it on Bookshop.
Oh, and PS. I use affiliate links for Bookshop!