Lucinda Rosenfeld is the author of four novels, What She Saw..., Why She Went Home, I'm So Happy For You, and her latest, The Pretty One: A Novel About Sisters.
Q: Why did you decide to write about sisters, and are the dynamics in the Hellinger family at all similar to the relationships between you and your own sisters?
A: Well, to an enormous extent, my identity in life is a product of being the youngest of three sisters—and not just any sisters but, to my mind, singularly talented, accomplished, and glamorous ones! For the first half of my life, possibly more, I felt as if I was playing an impossible game of “catch up.” So, I’ve basically been obsessed with the topic my whole life and always wanted to write about it. But it was many years before I could figure out how to create fiction around it.
I don’t write memoirs, so, in answer to the question that I suspect everyone will ask me!, the Hellinger Sisters are not the Rosenfeld Sisters. Are there emotions and dynamics in there that are true to life and even the occasional personality quirk? Absolutely. In some ways, The Pretty One is my most personal novel, though my first novel (What She Saw . . . ) was more autobiographical. But I don’t write memoir.
I actually feel that it’s a far harder genre to pull off than fiction, insofar as a) what really happened is usually unsatisfying or uninteresting from a narrative perspective; and b) there's no way to write about living people or even yourself without a certain degree of self-censorship. And I simply can’t construct a sentence if I think others are looking over my shoulder. It’s also why I don’t write in the first person (“I”). As soon as I type the letter, I feel stymied.
Q: Each sister in the book has been labeled by their mother: "the pretty one," "the political one," "the perfect one." Why did you decide to use "The Pretty One" as the title? Do you see that sister, Olympia, as the main character in the novel compared to the other two sisters?
A: Well, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but the title was actually suggested to me (okay, presented to me) by my publisher, Little Brown. That’s never happened before, but no one was happy with the title with which I’d submitted the manuscript, not even me. I won’t say what it was, but it was long and wordy, and I remember someone saying it sounded like second-rate Cathleen Schine (i.e. The Three Weissmanns of Westport). So that’s the short answer.
The longer answer is that the heart of the book is, in fact, the pretty sister (“Pia”). She’s obviously as flawed a character as her sisters, but I do think that ultimately she’s the most sympathetic one. (Tell me if I’m wrong!) It was also an interesting experiment to me, as the youngest sister, to try and put myself in the shoes of the middle one. I really do think that middle children have it hardest in life. Though obviously Pia has many things going for her, including her beauty. Though my intention was to show that even that perk has gotten in the way of her happiness in life, as she’s fallen back on it too many types at the expense of developing other areas of confidence.
More generally, the labeling that goes on in families and its detrimental effects is also one of the major themes of the book. Some of it is unavoidable. People have natural attributes that elicit comment. I understand that. But I also think that parents should bend over backwards NOT to label their children as certain types. It fosters competition between siblings and can end up being a limiting force in one’s life, I think. So the title is mocking, too.
Q: Your previous novel, I'm So Happy For You, looks at female friendships. How do those friendships differ from sisterly relationships, in your opinion, or are there more similarities than differences?
A: That’s a good question. Well, I do think that, in non-familial female friendships, the code of niceness is in effect in ways it isn’t between sisters. Women friends tend to save the cattiness for behind each other’s backs. With each other, self-deprecation and flattery are the norm. With sisters, on the other hand, the criticism is way more “in your face.”
To give you a fairly benign example, my own sisters have never had any problem telling me that an outfit I’m wearing is unflattering. I just don’t hear female friends doing that. Instead, it’s always “You look so great!” “You’re so thin!” Etc., etc. Also, I’ve noticed lately that the only people who call me anymore are family members. I don’t think I’ve heard from one of my close friends in weeks! These days, all our communication is done in text or email messages, or, on the ever-rarer occasion, in person.
Q: In future novels, will you return to the character Phoebe Fine, the heroine of your first two novels, What She Saw... and Why She Went Home? Why or why not?
A: I’d say it’s highly unlikely that I will return to Phoebe Fine. Even though there’s no reason she can’t progress through the ages as I have (in the second book, she was 30 not 25), she belongs to a younger chapter of my life, where self-loathing and doubt were more the norm. I don’t really have any interest in re-visiting that psychic complex.
Also, I have certain regrets regarding the sequel (Why She Went Home), and there’s simply no undoing that now. I feel the narrative went in an overly fantastical and unrealistic direction, whereas What She Saw . . . derived its punch from being brutally honest (about growing up a girl). Also, the language in the second book—as many readers pointed out—was somewhat convoluted. I fear I was trying to be fancy in some way, and it backfired! But enough of putting myself down. Besides, I just told you I don’t want to revisit Phoebe Fine because she’s too insecure.
Q: What's next for you?
A: I’m not sure what’s next. I’m working on some short essays for various publications. I might try to write a novel on gentrification. As I’ve watched the area of Brooklyn I live in change dramatically—and as I’ve become involved in the New York City public school system on behalf of my two young daughters and found that it’s completely segregated and that separate does not mean equal—I’ve gotten more and more interested in race and racial politics. It’s a hard subject for a “whitey” like myself to take on, but at some point I’d like to try.
At another point in life, I’d also like to attempt a historical work based on my Great Uncle (Zeno Rosenfeld) who ran away from home at 16, reputedly for the Panama Canal, never to be seen again. But I do worry that what Henry James said was right: it’s impossible to capture the nuances of an era in which you haven’t lived. So maybe it would be more of an experimental thing. We’ll see.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Just to set the record straight, growing up, I was definitely NOT the pretty one.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb