THERE’S A WORD FOR THAT
A hilarious and moving chronicle of a wildly flawed family that comes together–in rehab, of all places–even as each member is on the verge of falling apart.
Introducing the Kesslers: Marty, a retired LA film producer whose self-worth has been eroded by age and a late-in-life passion for opioids; his daughter Janine, former child star suffering the aftereffects of a life in the public eye; and granddaughter Hailey, the “less-than” twin sister, whose inferiority complex takes a most unexpected turn. Nearly six thousand miles away, in London, celebrated author Bunny Small, Marty’s long-forgotten first wife, has her own problems: a “preposterous” case of writer’s block,
A hilarious and moving chronicle of a wildly flawed family that comes together–in rehab, of all places–even as each member is on the verge of falling apart.
Introducing the Kesslers: Marty, a retired LA film producer whose self-worth has been eroded by age and a late-in-life passion for opioids; his daughter Janine, former child star suffering the aftereffects of a life in the public eye; and granddaughter Hailey, the “less-than” twin sister, whose inferiority complex takes a most unexpected turn. Nearly six thousand miles away, in London, celebrated author Bunny Small, Marty’s long-forgotten first wife, has her own problems: a “preposterous” case of writer’s block, a monstrous drinking habit, and a son who has fled halfway around the world to escape her.
When Marty’s pill-popping gets out of hand and Bunny’s boozing reaches crisis proportions, a perfect storm of dysfunction brings them all together at Directions, Malibu’s most exclusive and absurd rehab center.
But for all their failings, the members of this estranged–and strange–family love each other. Rich with warmth, humor, and deep insight, There’s a Word for That is a comic ode to surviving the people closest to us, navigating the perils of success, and taking one last look in the rearview mirror before mapping out the road ahead.
- Little, Brown & Company
- April 2019
- 384 Pages
“Engrossing, hilarious, and tender, this novel tells the story of how a family breaks apart and comes together despite years of mistakes and mishaps. I couldn’t put it down.” —Gretchen Rubin, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project
“This high-stakes, hilarious novel is many things at once: a tongue-in-cheek tale of warning, a celebration of privacy in our all-access world, and a heart-warming story about two families in search of salvation. Most poignantly, There’s a Word for That shows us how, with time, even the most intractable relationships can soften and surprise us. Sloane Tanen has a sharp eye for irony and wields an even sharper pen. I laughed loudly, and often.” —Lucy Tan, author of What We Were Promised
“A big juicy beach read full of family dysfunction and Southern California sunshine, There’s a Word for That joyously knits together the most frayed characters into a story you won’t want to put down, even after the last page. Sloane Tanen is a witty, wonderful writer who really knows how to twist a plot as she redefines what it means to have a happy ending.” —Amy Scheibe, author of A Fireproof Home for the Bride
“I haven’t read a book as quickly (one 22-hour plane ride) and compulsively in a long time. There’s a Word for That is that rare mix of funny and gutting, a page-turner coupled with deep emotional resonance. The characters are so richly drawn and their journeys so absorbing that by the end of the book, it felt a real loss to let them go. A funny, moving, gem of a novel.”—Melanie Abrams, author of Playing
“This is the novel for anyone who has ever had family. Oh, wait. That means everyone. Yes, it does. Sloane Tanen deliciously skewers us all while she romps through the connections we make and trample in our attempt to stay related to one another. Hilarious, wondrous, and fun, this is the book for right now.” —Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project
“Hilarious and touching!” —New York Magazine
“Though Tanen’s delightful sense of humor infuses the plot and dialogue with sparkle, the characters and their predicaments are not played for laughs, or not only for laughs — along with the farcical situations come moments of real emotion and insight…As the characters weather tough times and deal with hurts old and new, love and humor light the way. Full of intelligence and charm.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“There’s a Word for That is often uproariously funny. Tanen’s skill is that you don’t laugh at the characters. Janine and Marty and Hailey and Henry and even Bunny know how messed up they are. All you, and they, can do is laugh at the straits they find themselves in and soldier on.” —Arlene McKanic, BookPage
“Readers who miss The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (2012) and the Lamberts from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001) will welcome the Kesslers. With equal parts humor and empathy, Tanen’s first novel for adults employs multiple narrators and a skillfully drawn cross-generational family to examine how relatives impact one another.” —Booklist
“Tanen’s memorable wry humor and sharp dialogue will leave readers fully invested in the rebuilding of relationships despite years of distance, trauma and pain. Tanen’s refreshing tale of a nontraditional family legacy will appeal to fans of tightly plotted dramas in the vein of Maggie Shipstead’s work.” —Publishers Weekly
1. Do you think Marty is to blame for what happened to Janine or was he just trying to protect her? She feels that he didn’t hold her to a high enough standard and so she accomplished nothing with her life. Is unconditional love a good thing? In what ways do parents damage their children by loving them too much? Did you think that Janine being supported by her father made her unsympathetic?
2. Many of the characters undergo transformations in the novel, none so obviously as Hailey. The fleeting nature of both beauty and fame are important themes in There’s A Word For That. In what ways does Hailey’s physical transformation speak to the larger ideas in the novel?
3. What did you make of Janine’s relationship with Amanda? Which of the girls’ narratives felt more authentic? Did you feel sympathy for Amanda’s version of their history—or with Janine’s? In what ways do we all cling to our own stories, never really bothering to see the past from our siblings’ perspective?
4. There’s A Word For That is told from multiple points of view. How does this technique influence where your sympathies lie when reading the novel? Which character do you think is the novel’s main protagonist? Why?
5. Is Marty’s drug use understandable, relatable? Given the current opioid epidemic, were you surprised that someone as old and successful as Marty would be addicted to drugs?
6. The novel deals with different ideas of womanhood at different stages of life. Strong, independent women (Bunny), misguided women who rely on men (Pamela and Janine), confused women who feel victimized (Amanda) and girls trying to figure it all out (Hailey). Which character did you relate to most and why?
7. This book is very much about ageing and the fall from grace, both public and private. What do you think Janine means by the following: “There was nothing like visiting her father in rehab to illuminate how far he’d fallen in the world. Every stint in rehab, Janine knew, confirmed Marty’s fear that he was no longer essential, that in getting old, he’d become useless.”
8. Did you find Janine’s attitude towards her mother’s suicide disturbing? Was her insouciance a defense mechanism or a true remove? How do you think Pamela’s suicide affected the family? In what ways might their lives have been different had she failed in her attempt?
9. Narcissistic parents run amuck in the novel. Is Henry’s attitude towards Bunny at the beginning of the book justified? Does he have a right to be angry with her?
10. In what ways did the book make you think about celebrity? Tanen seems less interested in the high of fame than in its lingering side-effects. Do you think it’s possible to live a “normal” life in the spotlight? Can you think of anyone who has aged out of celebrity with grace?
11. What was your favorite German word and why? Do you know any other foreign words that capture something that cannot be defined in English?
Verschlimmbessern (verb): To make matters worse in the process of trying to improve them
Janine was lost. The smell of bleach and sweat followed her through the empty halls. She could hear a woman arguing with someone somewhere on the floor above. Or was it below? What floor was she on, anyway? She pushed her weight against a door and found herself standing in an identical corridor.
That it all seemed familiar struck her as ironic, as she’d never gone to high school, let alone college. Maybe she was confusing the building with a hospital, with its similar organizational system based on numbers and letters that seemed foreign until they became so customary it was hard to believe they had ever held any mystery. The first time she’d been sent to McLean, she’d been a teenager. But this wasn’t a hospital, she reminded herself, envying the sense of ownership the real students enrolled here must feel. She wondered if they were sad when it was time to leave it all behind. She hated endings almost as much as beginnings. Almost.
She found the classroom and took a deep breath. Her stomach cramped with anxiety. She was taking a cartooning class but could barely draw. How like her to pursue a dream for which she had only half the aptitude. Like being a blind bus driver, she thought. Having a good sense of direction probably wasn’t enough.
Two men, sitting on opposite sides of a long table, were already inside the classroom with their portfolios in front of them. Neither of them acknowledged her when she entered.
The younger man had on a shirt with the name Segun embroidered on the pocket. The other man was middle-aged with a beard and a long, graying ponytail. He was wearing an oversize Batman shirt under an unbuttoned flannel. How could a man live in Manhattan and dress like that? she wondered, trying to imagine what kind of job he had. Subway maintenance? Toll collector? Only transportation would accept such sartorial negligence. She took a seat equidistant from the two men and quietly opened her portfolio.
The silence was broken when three twenty-somethings spilled into the room, looking like they’d fallen off an Abercrombie and Fitch billboard. Janine was undone by the unexpected presence of beautiful young people. Wasn’t there a separate room for them? They positioned themselves on the table and chairs, reminiscing about some party or art event they’d been to the night before.
She felt the space around her expand as her heart began pounding. She tried to recall some of the tools she’d learned in therapy and on the internet. AWARE, she said to herself, grasping for the acronym like a drowning child for a floatie. A: Acknowledge that I am afraid but not in real danger. W: Wait and watch. A: Actions to make myself more comfortable. R…she forgot what R stood for. E: End. What the fuck did any of that mean? Maybe R stood for Run? She wasn’t ready for this. Watching the performance of this coterie of hipsters was quickly exhausting her reserve of sanity.
She looked over at Big Foot, as she’d taken to thinking of the bearded guy with the ponytail. Did he feel as old and irrelevant as she did? He was sketching, seemingly oblivious to the noise around him.
The conversation stilled and she felt someone looking at her. She white-knuckled her pencil. If she had a full-blown panic attack now, she’d never come back. She stared at her portfolio and breathed in and out the way she’d been taught.
“Hi,” a girl said.
Janine looked up, then glanced around to confirm the girl was actually talking to her.
“I’m Kayla,” she said with genuine affability.
“Janine,” Janine said, envious that simply being kind was enough to make a pretty girl like Kayla seem generous. She remembered how easy it had been for her to impress people when she was young and pretty. Being famous had helped too.
“This is Corey and Anya,” Kayla started but she was interrupted by the hurried arrival of a little woman with spiky red hair and matching red glasses.
“I’m Joon Louie. I’ll be teaching this course. Please open your portfolios and introduce yourselves.” She put down her bag and picked up a clipboard. “And tell us a little about why you’re here,” she said, looking at Big Foot.
“I’m Mike Hemingway,” he said. “No relation. I work as a production editor at First Second and I’ve always been into graphic novels. I love to draw. I want to publish a graphic novel before I croak.”
There was courteous laughter as Mike pulled out a few sheets from his portfolio. It was no surprise that he was into graphic novels, Janine thought. She could picture his collection of action figures tidily lined up on a bookshelf. What was surprising was that his drawings were mind-blowingly good. There was a collective sound of appreciation from the class. “My problem is keeping the characters looking consistent from different angles,” he continued. “That’s what’s been holding me up.”
“That’s a common problem and certainly one we will address here,” Ms. Louie said with a brisk smile. “Thanks very much, Mike. Next.”
“I’m Janine. I’m—”
“Last name, please,” Ms. Louie said, looking at her clipboard.
Janine hesitated briefly. “Kessler.”
“I knew you looked familiar!” the boy who’d come in with Kayla said, slamming both palms on the table. “You were, like, totally famous. You were mad-hot on that show.”
Janine felt a rush of dread and looked down at her feet. Penny loafers? Was she kidding? In what possible universe did penny loafers represent the beginning of good things? They were meant to be ironic, of course. As if a forty-one-year-old woman taking an extension class should be expressing irony through her footwear.
“God, that show totally defined my childhood,” the other girl said. She was staring at Janine like she wanted to lick her. What was it about fame that made people want to touch it, even after it had expired?
“Jenny Bailey,” the boy said, then he made a whooping sound and pointed at Janine. His head was shaved and covered in tattoos. “I’m sitting next to Jenny frickin’ Bailey from Family Happens! The crap we had growing up was so not as good as the old stuff on TV Land.”
His friends nodded in silent agreement as Janine considered the words old stuff.
“My brother was way into you,” he continued. “He had a poster of you on his closet door. You look different but it’s so you. He’s gonna freak.” He examined her from head to toe. “You’re like a hundred times smaller in person than you looked on TV.”
The room was lit with the glow of glamour. People aged; fame never did.
“Class,” Ms. Louie called.
“Whatever happened to you?” he asked, a faint look of distaste and curiosity on his face. “Why’d you cut your hair so short?”
“Um…” Janine started. She reached for the back of her neck, wondering again if the haircut had been a mistake. Being less recognizable was a bonus, but she’d begun to suspect resembling the latest Pokémon character might not be.
“God, Corey,” Kayla said with a pout, jabbing him in the neck with the eraser end of her pencil. “Don’t ask her that.”
“Class,” Ms. Louie said again.
“For real,” Kayla whispered, turning to Janine. “I think he’s starstruck. Your hair’s savage.”
Again with the goodness to spare, Janine thought. It was insufferable. Janine’s looks had been enough to sell lunch boxes and posters back when dissecting celebrity faces wasn’t a public sport. She was painfully aware of her current shortcomings and understood that people were troubled by her not being eternally fifteen. If she acknowledged what a disappointment it was that she’d had the gall to grow up, made a joke about it, maybe it would leave her audience without anything to say behind her back.
“Can we please continue?” Ms. Louie said. She looked at Janine with impatience. “Ms. Kessler, your portfolio, please.”
Everyone was staring at Janine. This was not how the class was supposed to go. Every time she tried anything new, it was the same. She was the “Remember that girl” person, the “You’ll never guess who I met today” woman. She was nothing but five minutes of conversation at whatever party or dinner everybody else was attending that night.
Her hands were trembling as she considered the options in her portfolio. She tried to shield the drawings from the others. Each page displayed some uncertain pencil lines with a joke written boldly underneath. They were jokes in search of an artist, the New Yorker‘s caption contest in reverse. She heard the click of a camera and saw Corey snapping a photo of her from the phone in his lap under the table.
“Seriously?” Janine asked him. She hoped she wouldn’t look like she had a double chin from that angle.
“Don’t be such a dick,” Kayla said, grabbing the phone out of his hands.
He shrugged as a kind of apology.
Janine tried to focus on how best to show her work. Nobody said anything as she silently flipped through her papers, looking for something presentable, struggling to keep her hands steady. She pulled out what she thought was the best picture, a clumsily drawn couple sitting on a sofa with a basset hound between them and a child in front of them. The mother was speaking to the child: Look, honey, it’s not that your father and I love the dog more than you. It’s just that we love the dog more than you.
Everyone laughed and leaned in closer. Too close. Janine tried to arch back without being offensive.
“Have you had much experience with drawing?” Ms. Louie asked with a frown.
“No.” She bit the inside of her lip until she tasted blood.
“Sometimes a life-drawing class is the best place to start. You see, once we are cartooning, we are exaggerating the familiar, so we need to be able to actually capture reality before we can successfully distort or exaggerate it. Do you understand?”
“Mm,” Janine said, trying not to cry. “I thought if I could develop a style then I could work around my inexperience.”
Ms. Louie’s laugh was patronizing. “It’s not that simple, Ms. Kessler. Maybe in the movies, having a style is enough, but in the world of cartooning, you must know how to draw.”
Big Foot was nodding.
“You must have some instinct for the form,” Ms. Louie went on.
Janine wanted to disappear. Being a somebody made everyone else a nobody. But being a nobody who used to be a somebody? The only thing more humiliating than that, she thought, was being a nobody who used to be somebody taking an extension class in cartooning at Hunter College. She could imagine more respectability in a drug overdose.
She felt the itching start around her ankles as she considered her options. She should probably pick up her things and leave the room before the rash kicked in. But she’d promised herself she would do this. Her new therapist had driven home the importance of Janine’s finally sticking with something, had clarified just how many years she had lost doing nothing. She’d become so good at protecting her privacy that she’d failed to create a life. And the problem was that once she’d grown accustomed to hiding, it was hard to live any other way. Janine looked at Ms. Louie and blocked out the other students.
“I came here to learn. It’s a level-one class. If drawing skills were a prerequisite, it should have said so in the course description.”
“It was implied.”
“Raw talent isn’t everything, right? You can’t teach someone to be funny, but you can teach someone to draw,” she heard herself say, echoing her father.
“That’s very true, Ms. Kessler. But you must be able to express your humor in visual terms if this is what you want to do, so some natural ability is an advantage and if it’s not there, well…”
“But a unique worldview is most important,” Segun said, coming to her rescue. “Look at John Callahan. He wasn’t a trained artist but he was very successful.”
“I’m not sure Ms. Kessler shares Callahan’s colorful personal history but I do appreciate the point.”
Absurdly, Janine raised her hand. “I’m an aging former child actress who’s about three minutes away from being a complete shut-in. I’ve got two decades of therapy behind me, I subsist on a steady diet of pharmaceuticals, and I have a stint at a mental facility under my belt. My history is colorful.”
There was nervous laughter; nobody knew if she was joking.
Janine thought of tossing in her mother’s suicide too but she’d always disliked watching that shock register. The compulsion to voice the matter pragmatically, effectively punishing people for asking too many questions, wasn’t worth the trouble of having to assure them afterward that she was “fine.” Anyway, it was obvious she wasn’t fine. She’d never been fine after the show. Her father had been right.
“Is there anyone other than Ms. Kessler interested in text comics?”
“I am,” Kayla said, smiling at Janine.
“Let’s see what you’ve got, then,” Ms. Louie said.
Janine made herself look beyond Kayla’s well-sketched drawing to the joke below. It was forced and unoriginal. “You can’t teach funny,” she heard her dad say again. Nobody was looking at her anymore. They had moved on to Corey, who was talking about his interest in storyboarding for short films. Her secrets were out. She was an unhinged former child star and an aspiring cartoonist who couldn’t draw. What could be worse?