There’s a new book out called The Most Fun We Ever Had. It’s about a suburban Chicago couple and their four grown daughters, who each seem to be messed up in their own special way.
The oldest daughter is an erratic alcoholic racked with grief; the second is a control freak who doesn’t want to meet the son she put up for adoption 15 years ago; the next is pregnant and falling out of love with her partner; and the youngest is a thousand miles away, caught up in a massive lie.
In this bonus interview of Nerdette, WBEZ’s Greta Johnsen talks with author Claire Lombardo about her debut novel, which tells the story of the Sorenson family through seven points of view, across two timelines, over the course of 40 years.
On why she set the book in her hometown of Oak Park, outside Chicago
Lombardo: I think my sort of jokey answer is that I’m a lazy researcher and I didn’t want to get to know another space. But I also thought it would be an interesting sort of place to explore privilege. It’s an upper-middle-class white family, and if I had had a thousand more pages in this book, I would want to sort of delve more deeply culturally. I have hundreds and hundreds of pages of this book that I’ve gotten rid of, and there was a time when I was kind of exploring more of the haves and have-nots. And the fact that, yeah, you cross Austin Boulevard and you’re in a very different part of the world, and a world that very seldom bumps up against Oak Park, which is problematic I think.
On whether she thinks her characters are likable
Lombardo: I love all of them; I wouldn’t say I like all of them. I’ve been surprised when people have said to me like, ‘I hate Violet,’ ‘cause I see all of these people as behaving badly because they’re in pain and I think that’s relatable too. The way that we react to trauma, or tragedy or hardship manifests in different ways and all of us. But someone like Violet is not terribly likable, and I think that’s part of the reason too that the idea of going back in time appealed to me so much because you can kind of look at, OK, we see her when she’s 3 years old; we can’t hate her then.
On how Lombardo’s own family influenced the book
Lombardo: This is not an autobiographical novel, but I grew up in a big family and grew up as sort of the observer in a big family. And I think a lot of the things we think are so unique about our families aren’t, actually. So I think writing a family story, people relate to this book in ways that I wasn’t expecting in terms of dynamics with their siblings. You never know who’s going to come out of the woodwork and say, ‘I understood this,’ but it’s been really fun to sort of see we’re all really screwed up and have weird origin stories.
On how she explored motherhood and marriage without having experienced that
Lombardo: There’s a lot of material that didn’t make it into the book, and one of the ways I get to know my characters is just putting them in rooms together and writing pages and pages and pages of dialogue and kind of seeing what arises. And I did a lot of that with Marilyn, the mother, and then her husband David’s origin story. That didn’t make it into the book but helped me to better understand who they were, what they wanted from the world, how motherhood would affect Marilyn. And I think it was really just a matter of kind of immersing myself in these people that I had created and trying to really understand what it was like to be them.
On how kids can still be scarred by parents who love each other
I think my editor referred to it as David and Marilyn, the parents, are the benevolent shadow under which the daughters are sort of existing. I liked the idea of looking at something unconventional — like it’s not the parents who are constantly fighting but refusing to get divorced, or the parents who got divorced early or the parents who are cheating on each other. And that’s kind of my approach to fiction: I’m conflict-avoidant and I’m plot-avoidant to a degree, but I liked the challenge of having a really good thing at the core that is the catalyst for bad stuff.
On whether the Sorensons are a happy family
Lombardo: I would say David and Marilyn are genuinely happy to be together. And I think these sisters do have complicated love for each other. They all still more or less forgive each other. You can be uniquely cruel to your family (in most families) and know that you won’t irrevocably ruin everything. And I wanted to keep sort of a core there that I knew wasn’t going to explode. And not to spoil the ending but like, no one murders anyone. It’s not, you know, we see the gun and we’re waiting to see it go off. It’s, we see someone say something that we know isn’t quite true, and we’re waiting to see how it comes back. So I think instead of having a conventional narrative arc, I did a lot of little tiny ones that hopefully will keep momentum for readers.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The broadcast version of this interview was produced and edited by WBEZ’s Alyssa Edes.