You’ll Be Fine by Jen Michalski opens with a single mother and her two children sitting in a parking lot outside an amusement park. The pre-purchased tickets are sitting at home, hours away, which does them no good. The mother blames her daughter, Alex, for simple childish desires — wanting to wear her new shoes that cost money, for instance — instead Alex reminding the mother to bring the tickets. Explaining that going home would waste more in gas than if they just bought new tickets with the money Alex received from her Aunt Johanna doesn’t go over well. Instead, Alex finds herself kicked out of the car while her mother drives off with little brother Owen still inside.
It’s quite a prologue, one that sets the novel up with a feeling that readers will have to navigate. What struck with me especially were the details of a tween girl: a heart-shaped pink plastic purse and new sandals. Or, the way Alex’s mother drives off before Alex has closed her door, so it swings wildly as she speeds away. Michalski plants seeds of hatred and empathy immediately.
Cut to Alex, age thirty-six, living in Washington, D.C. and working at a magazine. She’s just broken up with her girlfriend when her phone rings. It’s her brother, Owen, likely calling to tell her about something his cat did — again. Except this time, their mother is dead and Alex needs to come home. Owen had lived with their mother for ten years, a “failure to launch” man of thirty-five with a PhD he’s not using at his retail job, so Alex is more rude to him in general. In an effort to feel like she’s really doing something and not wasting the trip (to her mother’s funeral!), Alex tells her boss she’ll be profiling Juliette Sprigg, a trendy chef whom Alex knew in high school. In fact, Juliette and Alex were girlfriends during those troublesome years.
Michalski uses the story of Juliette and Alex to inject You’ll Be Fine with some drama around coming out as a teen, Juliette’s religious parents, passing as straight, and what it means to avoid grief. Is Alex sad her mom died? Michalski’s story suggests no, even as Juliette and others tell Alex she can be sad because something big has happened. Yet, in Alex’s reflections there is appreciation for the mother’s boho lifestyle and lax attitude toward authority. It’s mixed in with insurance fraud and drug use, emotional abuse and failure to see problems, making the novel more complex than your average prodigal-child-returns story.
The only person Owen and Alex have to call about their mother’s death was my favorite character, Aunt Johanna, whom they’ve never met because she lives almost 3,000 miles away, but received money and cards from unfailingly. As a transwoman, Johanna is used to being stared at, but it could be because she’s also fabulous dressed and made up, with just the right skin routine and clothes. She’ll pair the perfect wine thanks to her business acumen; she owns a winery in Seattle. Johanna is also willing to step back and listen. Why she was close to Alex’s mother is a mystery that comes out soon enough.
The true masterful task is how Michalski has readers follow Alex around for 327 pages when she’s truly a poor human. While she picks at her brother for any reason, she leads on a small-town reporter who has a crush on her, too, which gets mixed up with her feelings about Juliette from high school. Alex describes herself in a way that hits:
For years, possibly even her whole life, she’s known two things: ambition and grievance, and at times just one thing, ambitious grievance. It’s part of her identity: being an underdog, being scorned, succeeding despite those who’ve wronged her. How can she live without something to push against? To push away?
Letting go of past grievances is hard, sometimes even impossible. But if you look at what led to the grievance, and how the person who did wrong was affected by other circumstances, you’ll eventually make yourself dizzy as you look outward at the rings made by a splash in the pond. Sometimes, there are too many splashes and you feel like you’re drowning. But no matter what, tell yourself, “you’ll be fine” and see where it leads you.
Please consider buying your copy from NineStar Press. Not only do they have reasonable prices, but are a press owned and operated by LGBTQA people whose books are about Queer characters.