Rutgers–Camden Professor’s heart-warming, heart-breaking and humorous novel about cancer, single motherhood and mortality

Lauren Grodstein    Photo by Ken Yanoviak

By Jeanne Leong

In Lauren Grodstein’s poignant novel Our Short History, published by Algonquin Books on March 21, a single mother dying of cancer tells the story of their lives to her six-year-old son, so he’ll remember her when he’s older.

The protagonist, Karen Neulander, has stage four ovarian cancer. Now that her son Jake knows that she is very sick, he wants to meet his father Dave, who walked out when he found out Karen was pregnant.

At the time, Dave didn’t want to have children, so Karen assumes that he won’t want to have anything to do with Jake.  However, it turns out that Dave loves being a dad to his newly discovered son.  This forces Karen to confront some uncomfortable truths.

“It just blows her mind,” says Grodstein, an associate professor of English and director of the master of fine arts (MFA) in creative writing program at Rutgers University–Camden. “She can’t get over it. But, at the same time, her son loves being with his dad and loves his dad.  So, what do you do?”

As her son and his father grow closer, Karen grapples with fear and anxiety on multiple fronts. Most pressingly, what could happen to the plans she made to have Jake live in Seattle with her sister and her family after Karen is gone.

A dominant theme of the book is the depth of a mother’s love for her son. For Grodstein, writing about that bond is an expression of her own deep love of her eight-year-old son, Nathaniel.

Grodstein’s other inspirations for the book came from watching several acquaintances, and one good friend, lose their battles to cancer, while also witnessing divorced friends try to figure out how to work with their ex-spouses on child custody or visitation issues.

For Grodstein, writing novels allows her to practice what she teaches in her creative writing courses and workshops on campus.

“I think you have to live it to really talk about it,” she says.

Grodstein works closely with her Rutgers–Camden MFA students on professional development and on building lives as writers.

“Although almost every writer I know needs a day job, I also want them to feel like they can go out into the world and publish and be part of the broader literary community.”

Grodstein will discuss Our Short History at Rutgers–Camden on Wednesday, April 5 at 7p.m. in the Multi-Purpose Room in the Campus Center at 326 Penn Street.  The talk will also feature Patrick Rosal, an associate professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden, who will discuss his book Brooklyn Antediluvian.

Grodstein’s most recent prior novel, The Explanation for Everything  (Algonquin 2014), was named a Washington Post Book of the Year. She also wrote the New York Times bestseller, A Friend of the Family (Algonquin, 2009), which was a New York Times Editor’s Pick, and both a Spotlight Pick and a Best Book of the Month pick on Amazon.  Her other works include Reproduction is the Flaw of Love (Dial, 2004) an Breakout Book and a Borders Original Voices pick; the story collection, The Best of Animals (Persea, 2002); and the pseudonymous Girls Dinner Club (Harper Collins, 2005), which was selected as a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age.



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