OWhen you’ve spent the majority of your adult life single, sometimes the last thing you want to do is read yet another book with a traditional happy ending — or write one, for that matter. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still be a romance novel.
The endearing new book by Linda Holmes fly alone, out June 14, upends many conventional beliefs about relationships. Laurie Sassalyn has just called off her wedding and is about to turn 40 when her great aunt Dot dies, so she hops on a plane to go home to coastal Maine to clean up Dot’s estate. There, Laurie discovers a mysterious wooden duck decoy and, determined to honor the life of a beloved and adventurous woman who never married and had no children, embarks on a lively quest to understand its origins.
Along the way, Laurie reconnects with old friends, including her high school boyfriend. And she’s starting to come to terms with what happiness might look like to her as someone who doesn’t want to share a bed or a closet or probably even a house with another person. The novel is a refreshing and validating reminder that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all relationship, and that wanting a life full of love doesn’t mean needing to live up to other people’s expectations for what that looks like.
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Holmes, an NPR correspondent who hosts the podcast pop culture happy hourbroke out as an author with his first novel of 2019, Evvie Drake does it again, about a recently widowed woman who falls in love with a yelping professional baseball player. The novel, which is set in the same Maine town as fly alonewas a New York Time bestseller and book club selection Read With Jenna.
Holmes spoke to TIME about writing the book she’d love to read, the unique pressures that come with a second novel, and how she became interested in duck decoys.
The protagonist in fly alone, Laurie, isn’t sure if she wants to share her space or ever get married. Why was she an important character to develop for you?
As someone who’s been mostly single as an adult, I really felt — especially when I hit my late thirties — that if I’m meeting a really great person right now, I don’t know not if I would really want to live with them. Because I was very attached to my way of life. I was like, I wonder if it’s realistic to have commitment and support and love, while keeping a different place. There are patterns for that – queer people tend to be a bit more familiar with different relationships because you don’t grow up with that imposed pattern like some heterosexual people do.
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The problem for Laurie is that she came from a very traditional family that operated like most romance books would lead you to believe is the happy ending. But at the same time, she also knew women who lived alone and nurtured that sense of independence. She tries to figure out what kind of life she wants.
Laurie also has an interesting relationship with her hometown: she loves it, but she has no desire to return.
It’s different than what you often see in a hometown story – part of the arc will be you following a woman who realizes she doesn’t want what she thought she wanted. Like, I left and made this life for myself, but what I really want is to go back to my hometown and live with my ex-boyfriend. It’s a very common trope, and I wanted to be able to recognize that you can love and embrace your past, the community you grew up in, and the people who loved you when you were young, and still say, but I love also the life that I have made for myself.
You briefly mention in the book that Laurie is a size 18, but that’s not a plot point. It seems intentional. Was it?
One of the things people noticed about my first book is that I’m not very good at physically describing characters, and part of the reason is that I like to believe the person can have different appearances. The person could have a lot of different bodies and a lot of different hair. It never seemed important to me.
So here is a slightly more physical description of Laurie. I don’t really have a specific reason, except that I’m still trying to write the book that I haven’t read. And I wanted to acknowledge some places where it affected his life, but that’s not a big story point. It’s not something she dwells on.
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The wooden duck in the book is so much fun. Have you always been interested in lures?
During the pandemic, I watched a lot of Antiques Tour, and I got interested in the idea of loved objects and objects with great stories. I started tossing around this idea of a special item being left behind and discovered, and then someone trying to investigate its history. And I actually have a friend who is an antiques guy and goes to flea markets and knows a lot about collectibles. I described to her the type of object I was looking for and said, “I don’t want jewelry, I don’t want art. I want a real functional thing that would look this good, and not something people have read 400 books about. And he said duck decoys.
fly alone is based in a coastal town in Maine. Is this a particular area for you?
My family vacationed in the part of Maine where the book is set during the summers, when I was probably between 10 and 14 years old. And then when I was an adult and my sister had little kids, my whole extended family went back there for a few summers and I stayed in the same cabin we rented when I was a kid. We got to rediscover it – and that was 20 years ago, but that was the visit where I thought, hey, I’d like to write something here someday.
Your first book, the romance novel Evvie Drake does it againcaused a stir over the summer when it was published in 2019. Did that create additional pressure while you were working on the new novel?
The second books have a reputation for being really tough, and I think that’s because they are really hard. When I was writing the first book, there was no stake – I had no reason to think I was necessarily going to finish it, much less publish it. It was a very slow, laid back, “just see what happens” kind of experience.
The second book was completely different. There’s a part of you that thinks the first book did well, so I don’t want the second book not to do well. Even finding out what the second book would be, you go through a bit of, Do I want it to be similar to the first book, because I managed to do it? Do I want it to be different, because I don’t want to label myself? It was definitely a difficult thing.
Is it strange to be a critic of pop culture who launches into criticism? How does the experience of writing fiction differ from your journalism?
Fiction is very personal. So in some ways I feel like I have more personal investment in a book than in any review. But you know, it’s the same idea, which is you have to learn what you can from the feedback you get without internalizing it too much. Because you always want to do what you think is right.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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