One of The Globe and Mail’s “Summer 2021 books preview: 40 hot reads that will captivate you”
One of Maclean’s’ “20 books you should read this summer”
For fans of Nora Ephron and Jennifer Weiner, here is Katherine Ashenburg's witty, contemporary new novel about a forty-something newspaper columnist navigating her bold next chapter, set in Washington against the 2015 US presidential primary.
In the autumn of 2015, forty-something journalist Liz is working at a national newspaper in Washington, D.C., where Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency is the talk of the town. The divorced parent of a college-age son, she appears to lead a full, happy life: devoted friends, a job she adores, a breezy dating life. But deep inside, Liz is stalled in neutral, stuck in a clandestine affair with her boss and still brooding on her marriage, which ended in betrayal, hurt and anger ten years ago.
Liz’s job is to edit “My Turn,” a column of personal essays from readers. Her tidy life is upended when a submission about a marital squabble arrives from Nicole, the woman who had an affair with Liz’s husband and is now his wife. Wife Two has no idea that she is sending an essay to Wife One, and Liz keeps this secret as she engages in an increasingly personal critique of the piece. But the existence of the essay destabilizes Liz, and she starts acting erratically—publishing provocative essays that infuriate her colleagues, investing in a pile of unread self-help books about “forgiveness” and indulging in questionable romantic decisions. Soon she is caught in a tangled web of her own making, with no easy escape.
A smart, wise and witty novel with moving depths beneath its delightful surface.
About the author
Katherine Ashenburg writes for a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Walrus and Toronto Life. She is the author of three non-fiction books for adults, All the Dirt on Getting Clean is her first book for young readers.
Excerpt: Her Turn (by (author) Katherine Ashenburg)
October 12–18, 2015
Liz liked getting to the paper early. In the old days, a morning newspaper attracted night owls. Everything from the first inkling of a story in a reporter’s mind to the finished newspaper had happened in the building then, and the printing press waited, an immense dragon bating its breath in the building’s innards, until it clicked into its ferocious, self-absorbed rumpus at midnight. Writers’ deadlines were pushed as late into the evening as possible, and the theatre critic was always seated on the aisle so that when the curtain fell he (and it was always a he) could race back to the paper and write like mad. His review would appear next morning.
Now those primeval times—which had lasted up until a few decades ago—were over, and the Washington edition of the paper was printed at plants in Maryland and Virginia. Deadlines were cruelly early, and next-day reviews were things of the past. The old-timers still showed up for work as late as possible, grumbling at the ungodly hour, but Liz was not an old-timer.
She thought best, organized best and was most herself in the morning. When she arrived in the low-ceilinged, featureless newsroom a few minutes before nine on a Monday in October, heads occasionally popped up over the walls of cubicles like moles in a big, bare field, but it was too early for most people. Liz set down the thermos of strong coffee she brought from home, poured herself a cup and laid out her papers and files for the week ahead. Every day she had to fill a page with a personal essay and its illustration, and on Monday she looked ahead to the whole week, checking for variety in the topics, making sure that the illustration for each day was in hand or solemnly promised, sometimes taking a few stabs at a headline.
The page for Tuesday was in good shape—a piece from a father whose child was transitioning from a boy named Shelby to a girl named Tamara. Gender transitioning was a crowded field now, at least writing about it was, but this essay was fresh, with some hard-earned wryness. It would need only a few trims.
For Wednesday, she had the story of a custody battle. Two gay men doted on their two rescue dogs and when their relationship ended, the fate of the dogs was the most bitterly contested part of their breakup. Written by one of the men, the piece detailed their squabbles about who would get custody of which dog, how visiting rights would be organized and—very important—what kind of time the two dogs, who had been inseparable since they were puppies, would have together. It was honest and occasionally unsparing. Thursday’s essay was a funny, borderline-ribald story about a woman who treated herself to a visit to a luxurious bra shop after she weaned her baby. And for Friday, she had a lyrical ode to the pomegranate, timed to their fall arrival in grocery stores.
Recently Liz had run into a former colleague at a party, an editor from the foreign desk now teaching journalism. “You could edit that page with your hands tied behind your back,” the man said. It was a grudging compliment to Liz and a slight to her page.
Since My Turn, as the page was called, was not “real journalism,” but written by amateurs and—even worse—on personal subjects, she knew many of her colleagues felt the same way. Editing it was less demanding in some ways than her last job, as the education reporter, but Liz liked it. She liked the daunting fact of the bare page that met her every morning, needing an essay that was serious or comic or exceptional in some way, trimmed to the right number of column inches, accompanied by the right illustration, headline and summary. She liked the fact that the page was, inexplicably and annoyingly for her colleagues, one of the most popular in a newspaper heavily freighted with dense political reporting and analysis. She even liked the troupe of dour Eastern European freelance illustrators she had inherited from her predecessor. She didn’t have the heart to fire them, although she was always trying to leaven their expressionistic gloom with some defter, lighter talents. Most of all, she liked the powerful writing amateurs could occasionally produce when they were writing about something that was important to them.
Her phone buzzed. Hey, Mom. All good here, just leaving swim practice. Sorry I went AWOL last week, 2 midterms. They went OK. Have you gotten rid of the creepy poet? xx.
She smiled. Like Telemachus in The Odyssey, Peter loathed his mother’s suitors.
Dear Telemachus, nice to hear you did well in the midterms. Re the creepy poet, count your blessings: when the original Telemachus returned with his father to Penelope’s house, they had to kill 108 suitors. Nothing like that mob scene here. xx.
She went back to work, trying out a few headlines for tomorrow’s essay on Shelby becoming Tamara. Riffing on Shakespeare’s line, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” she played with, “A son by any other name . . .” No, bad idea. How about “A child by any other name”? No, it was making the name too important. A hed, as the headline was called by journalists, condensed the essence of the piece, ideally with wit or even a pun, and ran tidily across the page’s three columns. The summary, or deck, was less demanding, either a synopsis of the content or a teaser (“Like the modern, liberal parents we wanted to be, we had been relaxed about Shelby’s interest in dresses and skirts”).
The morning passed. Colleagues appeared, inquiring about her weekend, telling her about theirs, settling down to a story they were pursuing, a review they had to write, a piece they had to edit.
Norris Davidson, the managing editor, leaned over Liz’s cubicle. He wore his usual look, harried but determined to do the right thing, however grating.
“That piece you ran last week is trending on Twitter.”
“The one . . .” He was having trouble remembering. “Oh yes, the one where the old guy whose wife has died goes back to his hometown for his high school reunion and gets together with the girl he took to the junior prom.” He raised an eyebrow and slid his lips to one side. It was an expression that asked, In what world would people prefer to read that kind of stuff rather than Mironowicz’s exceptionally sound column comparing Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ attitudes to trade?
By around 10:30, the homemade muesli with no-fat yogurt Liz ate every morning had left a yawning cavity in her stomach, and she went to the cafeteria for a cinnamon roll. The publisher was standing in the coffee line, with three other suits. Normally he did not deign to eat the cafeteria food, or if he did, he sent his assistant to fetch it, but this morning he was showing a few guests around.
“How’s it going, Liz?”
“Fine.” She bit back “Mr. Donovan,” and the “Sir” that leaped unaccountably to her mind would have been even more ridiculous. So she left her reply hanging. He could call an employee by her first name, but unless they were known to be friends, calling him Seamus would attract attention.
He introduced her to the suits. “Liz edits one of our most successful pages.” Bravely, he began trying to describe it. As soon as the suits realized she had nothing to do with the politics or business sections, their nods and smiles turned perfunctory.
“Yes, I think my wife enjoys that page.”
On her way back to her desk, she ran into Filip, one of the Eastern European illustrators, carrying his portfolio. Her ignorance was embarrassing: she thought he was Polish, but now it was too late to ask him. No doubt he was in the building to chat up the newly assigned Spotlight editor, although the idea of the lugubrious Filip chatting anyone up was incongruous.
“Not many essays now,” he said to Liz. They both knew that there were exactly the same number as always, five each week, but she nodded.
“I have a big backlog to read,” she promised, mealy-mouthed as usual.
She worked on. By lunchtime she was finished with tomorrow’s page, sending the essay through to the paginators. For a hed, she had settled on “What’s in a Name? Or a Gender? Still the Same Beloved Child.” It wasn’t witty, but it summed up the piece. Later she would walk over to Don Fowler, the man in charge of operations, and make sure there were no problems. He always looked as if that query meant she was fussing. She could see him across the newsroom, a square, compact guy whose walk looked as if he had just dismounted from a long horse ride. Today he wore his favorite sweatshirt, which said, Don’t Tell My Mother I’m a Journalist. She Thinks I Play Piano in a Whorehouse.
By two o’clock, Liz was ready to start going through her inbox. As usual, the submissions had mushroomed in the dark and quiet of the weekend, and there were forty more than there had been on Friday. Most of the usual subjects were represented, many of which she mentally categorized as “Blessing in Disguise”—moving reluctantly out of a beloved home and discovering that the new one had advantages; realizing that a handicapped child was a unique treasure; being fired and learning that that was a good thing. On average, Liz chose roughly two of every one hundred submissions for publication. After she had read and dismissed about twenty with her usual dispatch, she came to one simply titled “Submission for My Turn.” What made her head break out into a sweat and her heart begin thudding was the name of the sender.
It came from Nicole Szabo in Seattle. Even in the instant commotion roused by that name, out of blind habit Liz skimmed the start of the essay. Something about preparations for Christmas. Nicole Szabo was the woman with whom Liz’s ex-husband, Sidney, had had a secret affair during the last few years he was married to Liz. Nicole was now married to Sidney, and she had no idea she was submitting an essay to her husband’s ex-wife.
That was one of the strange things about Liz’s job. Her name did not appear on the page, and outside the paper and her circle of friends, no one knew—or much cared—who edited My Turn. Often the submissions were full of intimate detail, either because the writers thought—incorrectly—that they could appear with a pseudonym, or because they didn’t have the writerly skill to control their revelations. Very occasionally, especially if they were from Seattle, where Liz had been married and lived for eighteen years, she knew the writer. There was the piece from a woman who was hiding her melanoma and expected that the paper would give her a pseudonym so that it could remain a secret. She had lived on Liz’s street in Seattle and Liz had no idea she had cancer. Sometimes an essay would give her a whole new way to think about someone she knew. That happened with the affectionate piece a young man wrote about his funny, quirky, tree-hugging mother. The mother had been the most difficult member of Liz’s Seattle social circle— sour, paranoid and tirelessly garrulous about her husband’s shortcomings. Clearly, there was more than one side to Nora Dowbiggan.
But nothing this close to home had ever happened before. Nicole was here, in her inbox. At first Liz felt invaded, although she told herself that Nicole was the one who was exposed, not her. She wanted a towel to dry her sweaty head, and a drink. She wondered if any of the old-timers still kept a bottle in their bottom drawer.
She sent Nicole’s offering flying into her NO file and she carried on with her submissions. She paid attention, more or less, and did not look at the NO file. It said very clearly on the My Turn page on the paper’s website that only successful essays would be acknowledged. So there was absolutely no need for Editor@MyTurn.com to respond to Nicole Szabo.
“Her Turn is a heartfelt comedy whose accomplished breeziness nevertheless portrays a complex protagonist going through a momentous season of mid-life growing pains. . . . Ashenburg ratchets up the novel’s farcical elements while simultaneously meditating on forgiveness and moral growth. Balancing silly and laugh-aloud with sobering, pensive and emotionally gratifying is no small feat, and yet Ashenburg . . . writes with the sure-footedness of a lifetime reader." —Toronto Star
“[A] Nora Ephron-esque comedy of social manners.” —The Globe and Mail
"What a gem this novel is. Hilarious, wise, and humane, Her Turn follows one woman’s twisting path through a maze of love and betrayal and forgiveness. It is infused with the joyful spirit of Nora Ephron and lit with a charm all its own.”—Elizabeth Renzetti, author of Based on a True Story
"Ashenburg’s gratifying latest follows a journalist who starts a dubious friendship with her ex-husband’s wife. . . . With its fruitful examination of betrayal and forgiveness, Ashenburg’s engrossing [novel] should appeal to fans of Nora Ephron.” —Publishers Weekly
One of The Globe and Mail’s “Summer 2021 books preview: 40 hot reads that will captivate you”
One of Maclean’s’ “20 books you should read this summer”
“This portrait of a contemporary woman (set firmly in 2015) is a striking analysis of journalism, adultery, divorce, parenting teenagers, and caring for elderly parents; perfect for fans of Emma Straub.” —Booklist
“Ashenburg writes candidly about a complex character. . . . Liz is never shamed for wanting love, sex, or companionship, although she often goes about it the wrong way. None of the characters are written off as easy 'bad guys,' not even Liz’s ex-husband or his new wife. . . . A look at betrayal and forgiveness that nicely balances humor and depth.” —Kirkus Reviews