This piece was first published on Head Butler.
I was intrigued by Jillian Medoff’s stunning new novel, I Couldn’t Love You More, from the very first scene: a princess-themed birthday party in suburbia with ten shrieking, tiara-wearing four-year-olds. Eliot Gordon, the birthday girl’s overextended working mom, learns from her own mother and sisters during the party’s cleanup that Finn Montgomery --- her first love and the one who got away --- is back in town.
Then, the next morning: a “mommy sex scene” that puts the “mommy porn” of Fifty Shades of Grey to shame. As Eliot and her daughter’s father, Grant, hash out domestic differences, he touches her in ways only a longtime intimate partner can. Their passion, couched in familiar banter, is rendered so palpably it’s just as erotic as any fantasy.
And that’s why I fell in love with Medoff’s writing. She has a knack for interweaving exquisitely honed moments of everydayness with surprising, riveting moments of wit, drama, terror, and deep truth.
Medoff never allows herself or her characters to make an easy choice. When Finn first reenters Eliot’s life, rather than having the predictable affair with him, she’s compelled to have hotter sex with Grant. And yet … Finn’s reappearance does drive the always-reliable Eliot to behave carelessly --- culminating in an accident in which she’s forced to make the hardest choice of her life. It’s an unfathomable choice for a mother: one that profoundly changes Eliot and her whole family.
I Couldn’t Love You More was published in mid-May. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] Less than two months later, the book is in its fifth printing.
This success hasn’t come easily to Medoff. After her acclaimed debut, Hunger Point, (1997) and her second novel, Good Girls Gone Bad (2002), she spent a grueling decade getting rejected again and again. She talks fearlessly about the writing life and failure in “This is a True Story,” an essay at the back of the book.
Why am I so enthused about Medoff? Just listen …
Gretl Claggett: There’s a lot of focus on Eliot’s big “Sophie’s Choice” moment on the beach. It’s gripping and controversial. But what about the small insidious choices that lead up to that moment?
Jillian Medoff: I’m a firm believer that the quotidian details of a character’s life are what make that character live and breathe for a reader. I’m interested in revealing how ordinary, seemingly unimportant moments and choices can have profound ramifications.
In the case of I Couldn’t Love You More, you’re actually witnessing a huge car crash --- the same kind of explosion you’d see in a Michael Bay movie --- but the crash isn’t the result of a car chase, it’s the result of a man coming into Eliot’s life and skewing her perspective. From one moment to the next, the action escalates and, little by little, her life veers out of control until there’s one cataclysmic moment on the beach.
That climax wouldn’t have half the power that it does if I hadn’t written all the smaller, nuanced moments that lead up to it. Had you not just read a hundred pages about these people --- seeing who they are, how they live, and understanding the experiences that shaped them --- Eliot’s decision on the beach would be startling, but it wouldn’t be as shattering.
GC: I admire that the choice Eliot is forced to make isn’t between two men, especially because it seems it might be at the book’s beginning. Because writing is all about making choices, what was the toughest one for you as an author?
JM: I knew I didn’t want to write another novel about a woman who has to choose between two men. That story has been told a million times, so I upped the ante. I decided to make her choice be life threatening, largely to see if I could pull it off. But here’s where things got dicey with my writing choices. In my first, say, 50 drafts, Eliot wasn’t a “good girl.” She was promiscuous, snarky and much more complex than she is now. I came to understand that if she’s going to do this very questionable thing --- flirt with an old boyfriend, become emotionally entangled, turn her back on her children as they swim in the ocean --- then she had to be much less complex and more “relatable” than she was. That’s where I had to make deliberate choices about her character, and I didn’t want to make them at first because I felt it was more interesting for her to be morally questionable. Ultimately, though, I realized that this moral questionability didn’t service the story.
GC: Some readers have judged Eliot’s behavior harshly. What do you think about that?
JM: I think my characters are judged more harshly than characters in other novels because of the intimate way I write. If you read the reviews on amazon, some readers have said they don’t like Eliot’s choices, and that her behavior made them angry, because they, themselves, would not act this way.
That's lazy reading. This is a novel, not a memoir, and it’s certainly not a novel or a memoir about these readers’ lives. The question isn’t whether a reader would or wouldn’t act a certain way; the question is whether or not Eliot is behaving in a way that’s true to, or consistent with, her character. People are upset about her becoming emotionally entangled with an ex-boyfriend, but they’re not looking at the larger context of her life. She’s constantly trying to do the “right” thing. She’s working, raising her own child and her partner’s two children, dealing with an aging parent and sisters. Finn becomes a breath of fresh air, a way to cut loose. Furthermore --- and even more important --- Eliot wasn’t only abandoned by Finn, she was also abandoned by her father. So doesn’t it follow that until Eliot resolves her feelings about her father, she won’t be able to resolve her feelings about Finn?
Our culture has become quite narcissistic and self-centered. So many people judge other’s choices, particularly lifestyle and parenting. Had Eliot been on the phone with her sister or mother when she was supposed to be watching the kids, people would’ve been horrified, but not outraged. Because it was Finn, though, the entire experience is opened up to moral interpretation --- one of the reasons I made that choice. I’m just surprised, I guess, by how virulent people have been about it. On the other hand, I love that readers are having such visceral reactions. It means I’ve done my job.
GC: How do you approach writing about sex, which everyone wants to do, but few do well?
JM: Writing about sex is embarrassing for me, as is talking about writing about sex. But to not write about how and when people have sex is to ignore an entire part of their relationship. I write about it the way I write about people --- intimately, honestly and as believably as possible.
Personally, I’m most aroused when a man is talking to me, telling me stories or laughing. So I tried to capture that heightened arousal between Eliot and Grant, who are very close and genuinely like each other. But I truly didn’t think that scene was graphic. Apparently, I was wrong. I’ve received emails from women who were offended and from men who were turned on and want to touch me. So go figure.
GC: Why is sex so hard to write?
JM: Most people don’t write sex scenes well because most people don’t write well. Writing well takes years of practice, of trial and error, rejection and failure. You have to be fearless and write without a net, meaning you have to let your characters make choices that undo them.
GC: In your essay “This is a True Story” --- attached below --- you speak frankly about your career, the writing life and failure. Samuel Becket famously said, “Fail better.” What does that mean to you?
JM: I love this question. Failing better means reaching beyond my grasp as I write my next novel, taking on more ambitious subjects and themes. My new book is about being a middle-aged American in the corporate world. God, that sounds boring, doesn’t it? But it’s hilarious and big-hearted and very difficult to write. And yet, I’m having the time of my life. If I fail, I fail, but at least I will have failed beyond my wildest expectations.
NEW YORK SHE WRITERS: Please join us ...
Jillian will read from I Couldn’t Love You More and then Gretl will interview her.
Date: Monday, July 16th, 2012
Time: 7:30 PM
Place: Greenlight Bookstore (718) 246-0200
686 Fulton Street (at South Portland)
Brooklyn, NY 11217
For more information and directions: greenlightbookstore.com
Photo by Marion Ettlinger
For Jillian Medoff’s web site, click here.