“Better Luck Next Time” Is The Perfect Novel To Kick Off 2021

Angela Lashbrook
7 min readJan 6, 2021

Or, how to find the humor in the midst of heartbreak.

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.”

Angela Lashbrook

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.