After After Hours at the Almost Home (mother and daughter talk about a tough book)

The advance reader's copy of After Hours at the Almost Home, Tara Yellen's gritty and gorgeous debut novel, arrived as my daughter Jerusha was on her way out the door to the airport. She nicked it with a quickness after checking out the PR copy:
It’s Super Bowl Sunday at the Almost Home Bar and Grill with the hometown Broncos playing for their second championship in a row, and the already busy night is about to get busier. When the bartender walks off, she leaves the remaining staff to the chaos of the night—and with the real question. Not why did she leave but why do they stay? After closing time and on a school night, Colleen’s 14-year-old daughter is no stranger to the Almost Home. She’ll do almost anything to leave, to move her life forward or somehow return to earlier, better times, anywhere but here. But it doesn’t matter; there seems to be no way out.

For one night, we follow all of them as they make their cash, close up, and then linger into the after hours, as they always do, their lives colliding, past and present, in the dark back corner at table 14—drinking, talking, and, now, in the wake of Marna’s absence, facing questions: Where did she go? Will she return? Why do we stay? How dangerous is restaurant love?

Jerusha read the galley on the flight over to Amsterdam. When I met her in passenger pickup a week later, she handed it to me and said, "I hate this book. You should read it."

Jerusha is an amazingly astute reader, and I as her mother appreciate any insight I can gain into what's going on inside her head, so I shuffled After Hours at the Almost Home to the top of my TBR pile and loved it. The ensuing dialogue with Jerusha went on for weeks. The book kept coming up in conversation, evoking talk about writing and life, mothers and daughters, love, sex, and how it's possible for two women to take such totally different reading experiences from the same book.

"Explain to me what you hated about it," I said. "Because I gotta tell you, I loved it, and it seems like a book that young women will embrace."

"She's such a good writer," said Jerusha. "The book is full of these surprising details--not unimportant details--just stuff you'd never think of, but it makes you say yes, of course. And I love her adjectives. The nuanced way she creates every corner of the place. And the camaraderie--it's exactly like we are at work. She gets that so right."

"Still not getting the hating it part."

"You end up caring too much about the people, and they're insanely frustrating. At the end -- that was just janky. Screw that."

Ah. The end. I knew exactly what she was talking about. Yellen makes a choice that's brave and beautifully written, but it's going to be a deal breaker for a lot of people. And ironically enough, the more they love the book up to that point, the more they're going to want to hurl it against the wall when they get there.

"As the night goes on in this downward spiral," said Jerusha, "the backstory started to feel like an excuse, but the scenario and relationships all rang so true." She mentioned a good friend who'd lost a parent. "This book reminded me so much of that situation. The family devolved and didn't handle it well, and yes it changed them, but they're not bad people for it. People have bad moments and bad moments can become bad ruts."

"If the author had made a different choice at the end, would it have made you love the book?" I asked. "Or is it impossible to love a book that breaks your heart?"

"Hmm. Probably not, now that I think of it. Stupid Hollywood endings don't satisfy either. An ending doesn't have to be happy, and it's not even that the author owes the reader a satisfying ending, it's that the author needs to set out to say something and they need to say it, and I don't know what she's trying to say. That people have crappy lives? Good people devolve for reasons? Whatever it was, she didn't communicate that to me -- unless it's the longest joke ever and i just didn't get to the punchline. I mean, 30 pages from the end, you should know why you're reading this book, and then she dishes up [the deal breaker] which so threw me. The logistical and legal -- Mom, the hygiene."

"Hygiene?" I said. "We're talking about ink on paper...aren't we?"

She pondered that for a moment. "If the objective of art is to evoke emotion, I guess I'd have to say it's a good book. Because I still hate it. But I'll definitely read her next book."

Perhaps the best word to describe After Hours is evocative. Book clubs, mothers and daughters, poolside readers, corporate lunchers, and PTO moms -- smart women will be talking about this deeply textured book for a long time to come.

I love that.

(Tomorrow, we'll bring author Tara Yellen into the conversation. I can't wait to hear what she has to say about all this.)

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