Open Book with Meg Little Reilly, author of 'The Misfortunes of Family'
For her third novel, "The Misfortunes of Family," author Meg Little Reilly didn't have to look far to find the perfect setting for a family reunion.
"I grew up in Brattleboro, Vt. — not far from the Berkshires — and I knew the region as a bucolic and culturally rich place," Reilly said in an email. "But for this story, I needed a place that existed in the public imagination as a well-heeled retreat, which is also true of the Berkshires."
Reilly, a speechwriter for the president of Bennington College and commentator for Vermont Public Radio, has set all three of her novels in New England. Her first, "We Are Unprepared," took place in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, while "Everything That Follows" was set in Martha's Vineyard.
"Place is important in all of my writing. I am interested in locations with distinct identities, places that conjure specific images even in people who have never been there. I think New England has this quality for the rest of the world," she said.
In "The Misfortunes of Family," the Berkshires serve as the backdrop of the annual family retreat of the Bright family. There, the families of the four Bright sons gather to spend three weeks with their parents, retired Sen. John Bright and matriarch Patty. But this year, the retreat is different. In addition to the petty family dramas that arise, there's a documentary film crew tagging along and their father's possible run for governor. The senator's announcement — a surprise to everyone involved — sets off a series of crises that threaten this all-American family's renowned reputation.
Reilly, former deputy associate director of the White House Office of Management and Budget during the Obama Administration, said she relied heavily on her "experiences working in national politics" when crafting the characters for this story.
"Sen. John Bright is a composite of many of the ambitious, shameless, hungry people I encountered in [Washington] D.C. (I had the privilege of working with many more thoughtful, brilliant and principled people, but their psyches aren't nearly as fun to mine for stories!)," she wrote. "Working in national politics was such a rich experience for a storyteller because the scale of everything is so grand: the stakes, the egos, the hubris and the falls. Every day is a Greek tragedy."
But, her novel is about more than politics. It's about love, marriage, family and human relationships.
"This is not a romantic story by any stretch of the imagination, but it does take a circuitous path to a full-throated endorsement of intimacy — a welcome change after writing two rather anxious novels," Reilly said. "I wanted to explore, with this story, the behaviors that we inherit from our families of origin and the ones we create in adulthood with friends and lovers. The ways in which families of choice, birth and circumstance intersect is fascinating to me. Maybe reconciling these conflicting identities is part of the work of being in our 30s and 40s.
"I didn't set out to spend so much time in the quiet moments between each of the couples, but I enjoyed writing it so much. The distinct ways that each pair managed to shut out the rest of the world when they needed to was a lovely discovery. The answers to these big questions continue to elude me, but I will keep asking."
"The Misfortunes of Family" was released Tuesday. Prior to the start of her official book tour, Reilly took the time to answer our questions about a few of her favorite books.
Q: What books did you use in your research for writing this book?
A: As the sibling relationships took shape in this story, I found myself returning to the parenting books I had read years ago, before my second daughter was born, the ones that promise a lifetime of sibling harmony. The parenting books don't really deliver on their promise, but they do provide insight into the ways in which bad parenting can foment sibling resentments. This novel has some fantastically bad parenting.
Q: What are some of your favorite books about love/marriage?
A: Only poetry can really do love justice on the page. Emily Dickinson told her great love Susan Gilbert, "We are the only poets, and everyone else is prose." In that spirit, I try to remember the limitations of prose for explaining love.
For the elements of this story that are pure feeling — the thing that eludes concrete description — I kept returning to the impressionism of poetry. When Frank O'Hara wrote "oh god it's wonderful / to get out of bed / and drink too much coffee / and smoke too many cigarettes / and love you so much," we knew precisely what he was talking about.
Q: What are some of the best books you've read about families?
A: Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited" is one of my all-time favorites, and another novel that reveals the inner workings of a family through the eyes of an outsider. "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen, of course. And all of Mary Karr's memoir writing manages to capture familial love, betrayal and resentment with a devastating sense of humor. Laughing through tears is the language that really speaks to me.
Q: What are some of your favorite novels about siblings?
A: Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" and "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott. And, because I have been reading a lot of Beverly Cleary to my daughters at bedtime, I can report that "Beezus and Ramona" hold up as iconic literary sisters.
Q: What are some of your favorite books that take place in the Berkshires/Southern Vermont?
A: Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" blew me away when I read it years ago. It made me want to write novels and made me terrified to even try. The fact that I now work at Bennington College — the fictionalized setting for the book and the place where it was penned — is such a sweet twist.
Q: What are some of the best books you've read involving politics?
A: I avoid political memoirs because they tend to be written to advance an author's political ambitions or put a shine on history. But I am thrilled by contemporary literature that can deftly weave together this fraught moment in American politics with deeply personal human experiences. Recent debut novels "Ohio," by Stephen Markley, and "Behold the Dreamers," by Imbolo Mbue, are both sobering and beautiful. And Gary Shteyngart's "Lake Success" is searing, brilliant cultural observation that feels like fun.
Q: What's the last thing you read that you simply couldn't put down?
A: "There There" by Tommy Orange; "Trust Exercise" by Susan Choi and Sally Rooney's "Normal People" made me feel everything. She captures the longing and thrill of early love with such acuity.
Q: What books are currently on your nightstand?
A: Unlike the novels that travel around with me, the books on my nightstand are the ones I can dip into for the twilight minutes before falling asleep, works I return to for comfort, or spend months chipping away at. Right now, they include a well-worn edition of "is 5" by e.e. cummings that I found at a used bookstore in Brattleboro; a collection of Joan Didion essays; and "Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty," a fascinating portrait of Day written by her granddaughter, Kate Hennessey.
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