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A new novel from Catherine Newman tells the story of the 'sandwich' generation

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Take the word sandwich, and you get a delicious lunch, preferably toasted, a Massachusetts town on the cape and also sandwich generation for those squeezed between caring for children and aging parents. Catherine Newman embraces all of this in her new novel called "Sandwich." Welcome, Catherine.

CATHERINE NEWMAN, HOST:

Thank you so much.

KURTZLEBEN: How did the idea for this book with its very apt title take root in your mind?

NEWMAN: They were kind of twinned impulses. One is I wanted to write about my sort of lifelong love affair with Cape Cod. And then there's, like, this secret other thing, which is that I wanted to write about kind of the toll of being a woman in a reproductive body hitting mid-50s.

KURTZLEBEN: I wonder if you could introduce us to your protagonist Rachel, or as her family calls her, Rocky. Can you read for us from the books prologue?

NEWMAN: (Reading) In the passenger's seat of one slightly resting silver Subaru station wagon, a woman in her 50s. She is halfway in age between her young adult children and her elderly parents. She is long married to a beautiful man who understands between 20- and 65% of everything she says. Her body is a wonderland, or maybe her body is a satchel full of scars and secrets and menopause.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, this book, on the one hand, it's very much a story about Rocky having reached this point in her life where, yes, she's going through menopause, and that's a challenge. But really, she's at this pretty happy place, and there's this passage where she thinks to herself, I'd pick this life, too. I'd even pick the way that pain has burnished me to brightness. The pain itself, though? I imagine I'd give it up if I could. Was pain necessary for Rocky to get to this joyful, relaxed part of life?

NEWMAN: You know, that's a question for my therapist - I mean, Rocky's therapist. There is something very galvanizing about loss in terms of feeling that incredible luck and feeling how precarious it is to be with the people you love, that that is the human contract, that you will lose everybody. And Rocky is the kind of person for whom an awareness of that makes life very sweet and very tender.

KURTZLEBEN: One of the central relationships that this book is about is between Rocky and her husband, Nick. Maybe you can tell us where they're at at this stage of their life together.

NEWMAN: They've been married for decades. They're new empty nesters. And they're at this moment where on the one hand, they've been together so long that there's this just kind of worn sweetness to the way they are. And on the other hand, there's a kind of realization Rocky's having that they have not borne the brunt of their lives as parents or as reproductive people. They have not carried this weight equally, and she's kind of angry at him about that, even though there's truly nothing he can do.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, we've hinted at this. A big theme of this book, I think you could describe as the indignities that happened to women's bodies - or can happen - at different times of life. It sounds like you knew from the beginning that you wanted that to be a central theme.

NEWMAN: I did want that to be a central theme, and I've gotten variations of questions on, like, did you ever think about just making this be, like, a nice beach read, which - (laughter) like, of course.

KURTZLEBEN: Great.

NEWMAN: You know, it's a question my family would ask a version of on vacation, which would be like, (laughter) could we just have a great week? Do you need to be such a pain? You know, my original elevator pitch for the book was that it was a book about reproductive mayhem. And I have since amended that to be like, It's a book about kind of everything that the body holds after decades of life as a reproductive body.

KURTZLEBEN: Speaking of reproductive storylines in this book, there's a subplot about abortion. Now, usually I cover politics, where abortion is often treated very delicately. So I was struck by how matter-of-factly you write about it. There's one point where Rocky and her daughter have this back-and-forth about abortion, and the daughter, Willa, scolds Rocky for how she's talking, and Rocky responds, Willa, honey, I'm not running for governor. I wonder if you could talk about the tone you use in talking about abortion.

NEWMAN: I really appreciate that question. The only thing nerve-racking for me about this book being in the world is that. Abortions aren't easy on women, but they are absolutely yours to have and yours to feel however you feel about. So I wanted that really robust politics to be in the novel, but to be in the novel as just, like, everyday conversation more than it being, you know, a five-page chapter that felt like you were being scolded about something.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, the season in this book is summer. It's at the beach. There's family drama. It felt to some degree like the setup for a Nancy Meyers film or a romantic comedy. Did you want to play with the tropes of those kinds of films and stories a bit?

NEWMAN: I don't know. I think I didn't think of it that way, but when you say it, I feel like it's kind of true. It's like the trappings of that with this kind of weird, gross, dark underbelly. And I don't know if that's gonna make people feel really off-put, where they're gonna pick it up, and it looks like a beach read, and then actually, there's a blood clot dropping out of someone's pants, and it's, like, terrifying. So we'll have to see.

KURTZLEBEN: I thought that bit was kind of funny, to be honest, so...

NEWMAN: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: Well, it won't be off-putting to everybody. I read that you wrote an etiquette column for a decade at the magazine Real Simple. Has that influenced your fiction at all?

NEWMAN: I think it consolidated my world view, to be honest. So, yes, I think it has influenced every single aspect of my life. If you write an etiquette column for 10 years, it is really hard to deal with the fact of other people's otherness. That - every etiquette question could be reduced to that. You don't like somebody's wind chimes. Someone puts lipstick on at the table. Do you invite your gay cousin-in-law to your wedding? The thrust of every question is, people are different from me, and I can't stand it. And then the thing that you have to say to everybody is, you have to stand it. That's the human condition. You have to approach it with as much grace as is humanly possible, which is more grace than you're currently mustering. And so I feel like that is totally in the book in a weird way. Rocky's challenge is to deal with the fact of other people's otherness.

KURTZLEBEN: Throughout the book, Rocky does actually make some killer sandwiches - they sound delicious - for her family. This is an important question. Are you known for yours?

NEWMAN: Why, yes, I am known for my sandwiches, and I'm known for trolling for compliments about them.

KURTZLEBEN: Nice. What's your go-to sandwich?

NEWMAN: My go-to sandwich is baguette with tuna salad that has tons of pepperoncinis in it and dill.

KURTZLEBEN: That sounds great. I will try that. Well, Catherine Newman's new novel is called "Sandwich." Catherine, thank you so much.

NEWMAN: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It was such a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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