© 2024 WSKG

601 Gates Road
Vestal, NY 13850

217 N Aurora St
Ithaca, NY 14850

FCC Public Files:
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In 'Our Short History,' A Dying Single Mom Pens A Letter To Her Son

Karen Neulander is a brilliant, determined, tough political consultant who is facing a crisis she knows she can't fix: terminal ovarian cancer. Karen is determined to use whatever time she has left to share as much as she can of her life with her 6-year-old son, Jacob. She also has another goal: to introduce Jacob to Dave, the father he has never known but must try to love for the rest of his life.

That's the premise of Lauren Grodstein's new novel, Our Short History, which takes the form of a letter Karen is writing for her son to read when he turns 18. "When she starts," Grodstein explains, "she says, 'Well, what I'm going to do here is I'm going to tell you a little bit about me, I'm going to tell you a little bit about our life together in case you want to remember, and I'm going to leave a lot of words of wisdom.' And that's her intention. Of course the story of Dave coming back into their lives sort of becomes the plot that propels the novel."

Interview Highlights

On what informed the book's detailed descriptions of cancer and cancer treatments

The most immediate source of information was actually my sister-in-law and her family. My sister-in-law's mother passed away from ovarian cancer; her sister was diagnosed with it, and was cured, thank goodness. But through their experiences, I was really able to see on the ground what ovarian cancer looks like. I was also able to see how women who were struck by it aren't just about their cancer, they're also living their lives and making plans and seeing friends and raising families. And that was important for me to see as well.

Lauren Grodstein directs the creative writing MFA program at Rutgers University, Camden.
Ken Yanoviak / Courtesy of Algonquin
Courtesy of Algonquin
Lauren Grodstein directs the creative writing MFA program at Rutgers University, Camden.

On what happened between Karen and Dave

Karen fell in love with Dave and had imagined a future with him complete with a center hall colonial, maybe a two-car garage and babies. And even though Dave said, "No, I never want children," she was really reluctant to believe that. And then she found out she was pregnant and planned an announcement, you know, "I'm pregnant!" And instead of him saying, "Let's get married," he said, "I don't want a baby. I told you I don't want a baby." And Karen, being feisty and determined and perhaps more angry than wise, she packed up and left and had the baby on her own and never told Dave and never planned to see him again and probably by some magical thinking thought that perhaps he would divine that she'd had the baby and apologize and come running back. But instead he married someone else. He moved on with his life. And she raised Jacob as a single mom.

Cancer is uncontrollable, but it's not as uncontrollable as the love of a 6-year-old boy.

On what happens when Jacob and Dave finally meet

Jacob — who looks like Dave, who has the same half curly hair, who loves Legos, who loves Star Wars just like his dad, both he and his dad have a thing for plastic figurines — they fall in love and they can't get enough of each other. And that is not what Karen expected. Karen expected to see the same man who told her he never wanted kids. But in the intervening 6 years, it turns out that he changed his mind. And now what does she do? Because of all the things she planned for for the end of her life, handing her son over to the man who abandoned them, that was not in the cards. ...

Cancer is uncontrollable, but it's not as uncontrollable as the love of a 6-year-old boy. And it's not as uncontrollable as the desire to give your kid anything that you want or that he wants. And so while facing the end of her life, there's all this language around that, right? End of life plans and end of life organization, and that's not entirely true; the end of your life is wild and uncontrollable. And this idea that she might lose her son or lose the plan she had for her son is in some ways even more brutal than losing what she expected of the rest of her life.

Editor Jessica Smith, producer Sarah Handel and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.