You’ll Be Fine by Jen Michalski

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.

22 comments

  1. This sounds like an incredibly complex and deeply rooted tale of family. It seems like it exposes quite a bit of the cracks that often exists in parent-child relationships. Even just reading your review started me thinking about that. Excellent review!

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    • Thank you, Tessa. I was surprised by how petty the main character is, but her feelings never come from nowhere, which is what makes it more interesting. And then what happens when you’ve unresolved feelings about someone and they unexpectedly die?

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m currently listening to an audiobook called Little Fish by Casey Plett, a transwoman who writes about transwomen. The book is set 8 years after the main character transitioned, which I found interesting because it’s not often you read LGBTQ novels that aren’t about coming out. There can be a lot of trauma in those coming out stories, but I’m learning the trauma, especially for transwomen, doesn’t stop after the transition.

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          • I do not understand why people think they have any right to this information about other people. Or any other information from a person. I hate being asked why I don’t have/don’t want kids. There’s more to life than reproducing.

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            • It reminds me of the penny test. Do you know which way Lincoln’s head faces on the penny? Almost no one does unless they’ve remembered this bit of trivia. The brain stores as little info as possible so you don’t have to process as much. Penny = brown. Good enough for the brain. I wonder if people asking “are you a dude” is akin to the penny test. The brain has stored certain information about gender, the person they’re looking at doesn’t match, so the brain wants to make it make sense. Now, is that rude? Absolutely. Do I think it’s okay? Absolutely not. I wonder, though, if the brain does stupid crap like this for survival reasons, like trying to decide if this person who looks different is a threat because they are “other.”

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  2. What gets me is your excerpt, Love ain’t the old razzle dazzle honey, it’s what stays when the razzle dazzle’s gone.’ Why didn’t I have a Johanna to tell me that when I might have benefitted.
    Alex might be a “poor human” but it’s authors interrogating their failings that make this type of writing so fascinating.

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    • I wrote to the author and told her I never fail to smile at the phrase “razzle dazzle.” Bill, given our recent conversation about you reading books with characters in their 20s and 30s, I’ll be you would enjoy You’ll Be Fine. It’s surprisingly inexpensive if you get from the website (if you can do that; I’m not sure how buying digital books works in other countries).

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      • I think I would enjoy it too. I followed your link but I wasn’t happy with the payment options (I think both my PayPal and Amazon accounts have lapsed). I don’t buy nothing online, but mostly only local stuff I can pay by credit card.

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        • A couple of years ago I wanted to get something with only PayPal as an option, and I tried logging in, hoping I would simply remember my information. It turns out I had created that account so long ago that it still had Biscuit’s address associated with it. It still works, though! I also use PayPal to check out as a guest.

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  3. This sounds nicely complex. It’s always impressive when a writer can make you care about an unlikeable character or demonstrate the complexities of difficult relationships like this.

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    • True. I think it’s much better than the predictable romance arc in which people are enemies, then they fall in love, then they have one big misunderstanding, then they get back together in a dramatic ending. The road in You’ll Be Fine isn’t like that, but it tricks you into thinking it could be like that at several points.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds like a fascinating one, I would read it in quite a specific way, I think, though I have no siblings to chip away at. It’s hard to admit you wouldn’t be sad when a parent died, so I like the bravery of the author in portraying that.

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    • After a person with whom you have a complicated relationship dies, it’s so confusing. I’ve experienced this myself. Did I love this person? Am I relieved they are gone? Do I miss them, or am I angry and resentful over all the squandered opportunities to have a good relationship?

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  5. It’s impressive to be able to get readers to follow a truly unlikable character without throwing the book across the room – that’s something my ongoing Vanity Fair reread has made me think about, because Becky Sharp is so unapologetically awful. I think it’s easier in third person than in first, because you at least get some emotional distance from the character.

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    • I kept thinking that the main character had been trained emotionally to pick at other people, but she doesn’t quite see that. She sees something and calls it out and feels fine with that. She’s not vile, per se, but challenging. At least with Alex we know about her background. Becky Sharp, if I remember correctly, is just a pill because she’s selfish.

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  6. Gosh this book sounds like nothing I’ve ever really heard of before. It’s difficult to tell in this review if you really liked it or not- did Alex just get on your nerves too much, or were there some redeeming qualities to her?

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    • Oh, I very much enjoyed this book, and one reason I was impressed is that Alex isn’t our down-on-her-luck, plucky heroine whom we’re always rooting for. The character is more complicated, but you also want to see where she’s going. Sorry for the confusion!

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