Book chat: ‘The Hopefuls’ by Jennifer Close

the-hopefulsBeth can’t say she entered into her marriage with Matt ignorant of his political aspirations. But when her husband relocates them to Washington, D.C., as part of his work for President Obama, the tedious, seedy and, yes, often dull side of politics takes over her day-to-day life.

A friendship with Ash, a Texan also in the city due to her husband’s presidential connections, adds levity and companionship to Beth’s life — but Ash’s husband, Jimmy, has political goals of his own. When Matt and Jimmy become entangled in “turning Texas blue” as part of Jimmy’s campaign to earn a spot in local government, jealousy and indignation threaten to derail more than just their friendship.

Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls caught my eye because, hello, I adore the cover. I’m also a Marylander who lives within breathing distance of Washington and am always swept up in politics, both local and national, and I’ll admit to being a bit wistful regarding the halcyon days of the Obama Administration. The story opens at the start of his first term, and it was actually bittersweet — especially given the current state of affairs — to think about how different life was then.

The Hopefuls had my attention early, gaining good ground even with the constant digs against D.C. (yes, it’s hot and humid; yes, everyone here talks about their job as a way of gaining status), but my enthusiasm for the story flagged by the time Matt and Beth departed for Texas to help with a weirdly unattainable political campaign put on by Jimmy.

Told from Beth’s first-person perspective, I expected … more of Beth in this story? As it stands, she’s merely an observer — and not a terribly interesting one at that. Though we’re told she’s a writer, she spends her time in Texas complaining and wandering around the house she and Matt now share with Jimmy and Ash, “helping” with the campaign here and there but ultimately doing nothing but seething with rage as Matt comes increasingly distant.

There was so much potential in a subplot regarding whether Beth actually wants to have the child she knows her husband longs for, especially as all of their coupled friends start families … but it never really goes anywhere, at least not in a satisfying way. Beth has an opportunity to look inward regarding the source of her anger as her closest girlfriends become mothers, but the novel just stays on-the-surface throughout. That disappointed me.

I enjoyed Close’s examination of adult friendships and liked brash Ash (hey, that rhymes), but her dynamic with husband Jimmy was pretty sad — and Matt and Beth’s marriage ultimately flounders, too. As a look at how changing priorities can impact — and damage — relationships as marriages mature, I think The Hopefuls works. But it’s just a little depressing, too.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for review consideration


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Celebrating year two

Wedding

Two years ago today, Spencer and I joined hands before family and friends and officially became the Johnsons.

It’s a strange and wonderful thing, being married. Braiding your life with someone else’s, creating a home, starting a family. Welcoming our son in the spring changed us forever, but we were a duo before becoming a trio. And we are a twosome still.

We were able to sneak in a “date” yesterday. Spencer was out on work-related errands, and I had a little time before deadline to take an early break. It was spontaneous (not my strong suit), and also pretty wonderful. Oliver was at day care. We haven’t been alone in a restaurant in months — and when Spence climbed from his car without the ever-present car seat, we both laughed.

“This is weird,” he said.

And it was. But by dessert — the denouement of a meal free of diaper changes, fussing or crying with one of us pacing the restaurant with an infant while the other scarfed down their food, well . . . we were good with it.

Our second year of marriage has been filled with so much love — love laced with deep exhaustion. It was, of course, the year we became parents.

The best thing to come out of 2015 — aside from our actual child, of course! — is the deep joy I feel seeing my husband become a father. As I wrote back in April, you can’t always know how someone is going to react to trying circumstances until you’re in them — and Spencer has proved time and again to be a loving, patient, devoted dad to Ollie and spouse to me.


First dance


We said “in sickness and in health,” and we meant it. If there was any mystery left in our marriage, it was definitely shucked in the ambulance taking us to Baltimore and, soon after, in the delivery room.

But there’s a comfort to that: a sense of wellbeing that comes from knowing someone doesn’t care if you have more gray laced in your hair these days or haven’t yet bothered to brush your teeth. That familiarity is what makes our house our home, and I love nothing more than plopping Ollie between us on Sunday mornings so we can drink coffee in our pajamas.

Our evenings aren’t as exciting as they once were. I’m lucky if I can stay awake to watch an hour-long drama on the DVR. We both come back from work depleted, and then we have an adorable 7-month-old (!) seeking more of the time and energy we don’t always feel we have to give.

But no matter how ornery or broken I feel, Spencer knows how to step in, put an arm around me and say, “It’s OK — we’re in this together.”

What a wonderful thing to know you have a partner, a teammate, a fan waving a sparkly banner for you on the sidelines. To know the world can be hard and unflinching, but you won’t breathe any of that when you shed your coat at the front door.

When I come in carrying the remnants of my work day, I almost always find Spencer snuggled with Ollie over the evening news. They both look up at me, two sets of sweet dark eyes, and smile.

There’s nothing in the galaxy I would trade for those moments.

Happy anniversary, Spencer! You make home the absolute best place to be. xo

Halloween


One beautiful year

Wedding

Monday marked one year of marriage — and in my typical fashion as of late, I’m behind the times. Eternally behind the times. But I’m here! And I certainly haven’t forgotten!

You know, we really thought we lucked out with the weather that day: mild, bright and breezy, with temperatures in the mid-60s and plenty of warmth in the sun. As I’m obsessive-compulsive even when I’m not planning a life-changing event for 150 people, I’d checked the Farmer’s Almanac average temperatures like a lunatic in the months leading up to our wedding day. An outdoor wedding in November? Who does that? But their warm predictions held true.

What I remember most about that day was my anxious excitement to see Spencer. And the way that I managed, after months of planning and obsessing, to actually stay in the moment. That elusive idea — that I enjoy the now — is something I’ve tried to cultivate for years. It’s very easy for me to agonize about the future and analyze the past, leaving me clinging to little in the present.

The seconds that come back to me clearly are the times I was actually alone: driving myself from the hair salon to our apartment, then getting my brother-in-law to pick me up headed to the venue; nibbling on a sandwich in the bridal suite when the entire crew went outside to rehearse the ceremony.

I just kept thinking, I’m getting married! And it was all surreal until the moment I stepped out in my gown and red shoes to see Spencer, waiting for me on a shady veranda where we glimpsed each other for the first time.


Dance floor kiss


And we danced. We danced so much. I remember joking with our photographers ahead of time that they were going to be hard-pressed to get any shots of me on the dance floor. Unless under, you know, extreme duress.

But that is . . . not exactly how it played out. Of all the surprises, our endless cutting-a-rug-ness surprised me the most. Not because of my groom, of course — Spence loves to break it down — but me? I’ve never danced so much — and with such reckless abandon — as I did that night, and I love remembering the silliness and happiness that propelled us over and over again. The feeling of having all your loved ones around you, cheering and clapping and smiling, really was intoxicating.


Cake cutting


So what have we learned more than 365 days into this beautiful, crazy thing? For me, I wondered if marriage would “feel different” — like waking as one person and emerging another. Almost immediately after the ceremony, I was greeted as “Mrs. Johnson” . . . and I thought, That’s it? Just like that: in one way, out another?

Though it was strange at first, I love being a Mrs. — and rarely slip up and sign the old name. After 28 years as a Snider, I figured the transition would be rocky. I’d have moments of uncertainty, moments of longing to perhaps return to what was familiar and “normal” and true.

But I haven’t. Spence and I quickly developed a new normal — a normal for us — and often laugh at what feels like our “never-ending sleepovers.” After living at home until the ripe ol’ age of 28, I thought I would panic at the idea of changing residences . . . but we’ve actually moved again, of course, and I’ve adjusted. Very, very well.

Spencer and I are a team. Marriage does feel different — because I know someone is constantly in my corner, always waiting with the porch light on. Asking about boring things like what I had for lunch. Sipping coffee next to me, still in pajamas, and happily wandering grocery store aisles on Monday nights.

Together.

The past year has been filled with laughter and challenges, joy and a little stress. Buying our first home (and renovating said home), moving again, vacationing in California, celebrating our first holidays as a married couple . . . and heading into 2015, life will change and evolve and expand again.

Though we can never know what’s in store for us, I know one thing for sure: I wouldn’t want anyone else by my side. It really is a beautiful thing to know, deep in my soul, that I’ve married my best friend. I look forward to the months and years and decades to come . . .

. . . one popcorn-filled, hot chocolate-swilling sleepover at a time.


Wedding


Giving her away: one year later

One year ago, I was preparing to give my sister away.

And that’s truly how it felt: giving her away. Three years my junior, Katie has been my partner in crime since the day she was born. We lived under the same roof until the morning of her wedding, just a wall apart for 25 years, and the day she married — though joyous and much-anticipated — was undoubtedly bittersweet.

It’s hard to admit that. I love my brother-in-law and love him for my sister; it’s nothing like that. My fear was purely, purely selfish. I didn’t want to feel anything but happy for her on September 28, but I was so scared and sad for myself. Just weeks from my own wedding in November, the swiftness with which everything changed — a giant rug suddenly torn away — was like being shoved into an icy river. Sans clothing. In January.

But now, a year later, I can reflect on that weekend with happiness. With clarity. So many of the fears I had about us moving forward — that we wouldn’t remain close; that we wouldn’t see our parents often; that everything would be fractured, different — have not come to pass. As always, my imagination is worse than any reality could be . . . and though things have changed, of course, they are not bad.

They are good. Great, even.

I looked through Katie’s wedding photos last night, remembering all the anticipation and excitement and anxiety we experienced in swift tumult leading up to their union. As I walked the aisle as maid of honor, I remember clutching the best man’s arm because I was legitimately afraid I would fall over — because of my high heels, partially, but mostly because “I Won’t Give Up” was playing and everyone was there, watching, and it was really happening.

The moment we’d anticipated since we both got engaged — on the same day — was here.

It was surreal. That’s the best way I can describe the entire day: surreal.

But surreal can be beautiful, too.


Enjoying the ride

Tall balloon

The quiet surprised me the most.

The first time we took a hot air balloon ride (over Napa Valley, back in our dating days of 2012), we were in a large basket with at least 10 other adults. It was crowded, everyone was chatting — and Spencer I wound up in different compartments on our ride.

(Side note: I was somewhat convinced Spence was going to propose on that fateful ride, but that moment would come six months later. Also, if he had wanted to pop the question in that balloon, it might have been mighty awkward. We would barely have been able to reach each other and hug.)

Back on our honeymoon last November, Spence and I booked a second ride over Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Having had so much fun the last go ’round, we were hoping for another memorable experience. Alas — cold and wind kept us grounded that trip, meaning we had to reschedule . . . for nine months later.

We certainly could have gotten back out to Woodstock, Va., before last weekend, but it’s a long trip — and I knew we’d be in the area for an annual ham radio event Spencer loves on Sunday. The stars finally aligned for us to get airborne once more.

Climbing into the basket (I have stumpy legs — it’s a process), I felt a rush of nerves as our balloon was untethered and the ground crew below us began to fall away. When a hot air balloon is released, everything happens really quickly; one moment you’re on the grass, the next you’re airborne and looking down at the world you thought you knew.

Everything looks different from above.


Blowing up balloons

Mountain view

Church sunset

Farmland


I thought I’d be scared, but somehow . . . I wasn’t. On paper, this looks like exactly the sort of experience that would push me into a fetal-position panic attack (extreme heights, lack of protection/parachute, risk of pilot error and, um, horrible fall to imminent death), but I didn’t even hesitate to ungracefully get in.

Not even after signing my life away in a series of legal documents.

Unlike our large ride in California, only five of us — including the pilot — shared this basket. Without the occasional bursts of fire from the burner keeping us afloat, it was silent . . . or close to silent, anyway. Even from high above we heard cars on the highway, cicadas in trees, dogs barking below on working farms. It was peaceful . . . almost holy.

No one said much. We were smashed with strangers, for one, but more than that? It just didn’t seem like the time. I was too busy gazing at the mountains — ones we were almost even with, it felt — and taking in the low clouds cresting the darkening mountain peaks.

Though only in flight for about a half hour, our view from above was totally different from our sunrise trip in Napa — but just as exciting.


Hills and house

Shadowy hills

Red house

Balloon landing


And this time? I totally wasn’t analyzing Spencer’s every movement, waiting to spot the glint of a diamond. That was a beautiful thing.

We’re married now, I thought. This was an experience we were scheduled to have had in the early days after our wedding, but I suddenly felt grateful it hadn’t worked out.

We needed this break. From the house, from our worries, from work. Though it hasn’t been so very long since our Yosemite trip, the summer has been brutally busy — and this balloon ride, though brief, was almost medicinal.

I didn’t even panic as we sank toward the ground, our basket just clearing the treetops as our pilot prepared us for landing.

For once, I hadn’t worried about the ending.

I just enjoyed the ride.


Hands


Why I don’t miss wedding planning


Given I devoted all of 2013 to planning, participating in or recovering from my sister’s wedding and my own, I was a little worried I’d find myself totally adrift in the new year. The post-wedding blues, if you will.

I’m not the type of person who likes to sit too long. I think and worry too much — or start over-analyzing, getting anxious. It’s not good. Much of my adult life has been devoted to trying to achieve that elusive sense of “balance,” in fact; I want to be busy without using that go go go spirit as a crutch or an excuse, but still slow down enough to enjoy the simple things in life. (We know they’re really the big things).

A work in progress.

But as our November wedding drew to a close and gave way to a fresh, crisp new year, I don’t find myself waxing philosophical about my spreadsheets or vendor checklists or time wiled away on The Knot. I’ve channeled my creative energy into work and new pursuits, looking for ways to stretch as a writer and a person. Wedding planning proved I could find more hours in the day, and I’ve gotten much better about using my time better for work and play.

And then there’s the whole house-buying thing happening this spring. That’s certainly going to chew up some time.

But for as much as I loved our wedding and (much of) the process leading up to it, I often think back on last year with a feeling of pure relief. We did it, you know? It’s done. It was emotional, stressful, turbulent. I left my childhood home for the first time; I stood at my little sister’s side on her own wedding day; we dealt with illness and death, uncertainty and major upheaval.

For someone who is typically wedged in her tight little shell (very Cancer the crab of me, I’ll note), I sure did some growing.



I don’t miss wedding planning because it was a series of decisions — ones that felt so big and serious and important and really all-consuming at the time, though I realize in hindsight I should have backed down on some issues and simply not worried at all about others. For someone weighed down by the prospect of making the “wrong” choice at any given time (I’m a perfectionist, what can I say?), that was very difficult for me.

And the help! Asking for help was so hard. I don’t miss wedding planning because I usually prefer to just handle things myself . . . out of fear of, you know, inconveniencing anyone. Even my now-husband. Accepting that others wanted to help me with wedding-related tasks was really tough. I just felt like I was bothering them or, worse, was an “overzealous” bride oversharing everything online. The result? I didn’t always invite others into what was really a very happy time.

Mostly, I don’t miss wedding planning because the pressure is now off. The pressure of handling logistics for 150+ people; the pressure of preparing to move; the pressure of knowing these major events were on the horizon and I was supposed to be having the time of my life when, in reality, I did have a great time planning everything with Spence — but it was complicated, too.

When I expressed anxiety over some aspect of the wedding (or just getting married in general), I feared the judgment of my relationship. I worried admitting to being scared of so many changes happening at once was akin to casting doubt on what I have with Spencer, which was the last thing I wanted to do.

So I held back.

Upon reflection, I could have opened up more to the people in my life. Worked on releasing some control. Though Spence more than proved himself to be the stable, compassionate and thoughtful support I really needed, I could have simply relaxed a little more.

But that’s life, I know. Hindsight being 20/20 and all that. How many people are stressed leading up to their weddings? (I’m guessing, um, many.) Nothing is perfect . . . we just do the best we can. And I still had a heck of a lot of fun as an engaged lady!

And the main reason I don’t miss wedding planning? Because I really love being married. Love spending so much time with my husband. I love being a team, deepening our bond, making big decisions together — all that mushy stuff. Our little routines and rituals; our shared TV watching and dinner-making. The little things like sharing (and perhaps squabbling over) chores and grocery shopping are still fun for me, and we’re getting into budgeting and prepping and striding into the murky waters of homeownership together.

The wedding was just the beautiful beginning.

All the great stuff comes after.


Photos by Birds of a Feather Photography



There are places I remember

For someone who likes to keep a tight fist around her emotions, I can be pretty mushy.

Like, really mushy.

Too-embarrassing-to-put-on-the-Internet mushy.

But I guess that’s not a bad thing, right? I mean, I really love my husband. Which is a good thing, considering we’ve only been hitched for two months . . . and if the sheen had already worn off, that might be a little scary.

Last weekend I started going through old photo albums hunting for favorite photos of Spencer and me through the years — pictures that will be included in a montage for our wedding video. I’ve totally slacked on this task; though I vowed to get our videographer the needed materials soon after the wedding, I crashed hard in November and basically abandoned any remaining bridal tasks . . . save the all-important thank-you notes.


Megan

Spencer


But. It’s late January now and, well, I seriously had no excuses left. Plus we would like to get our video back eventually, and I’d already stalled things enough with my procrastination.

And I’m getting déjà vu for some reason. Perhaps because I’ve procrastinated on many tasks before?

Eh, maybe.

So yes, Sunday afternoon was the culmination of all my putting-things-off-post-wedding — and the process of finding pictures of us was actually really fun! My parents-in-law were kind enough to bring many pictures of Spence when they visited at Christmas, and I had so much fun finding shots of us from similar ages.

Watching Spence through the years — and seeing physical evidence of my own rise to eventual adulthood — was actually really emotional. I remember being 16, 17, 18 . . . and friends, it doesn’t feel so very long ago. It’s crazy yet somehow reassuring for me to think that as I nursed my first break-up, my first heartbreak, my whacky twenties . . . well, Spencer had been out there somewhere. Waiting to meet me.


Childhood

Middle school

HS graduation


I used to lament that we didn’t have “a story.” Meeting online means you never have that our-eyes-met-from-across-the-room moment, you know? There’s no crowded bar, no college psych class, no high school sweetheart mythology. We met because Spencer stumbled upon my online dating profile and sent me a message, and I responded.

But I never would have joined the dating site if Jess hadn’t encouraged me to. If my parents hadn’t weighed in with an enthusiastic “do it!” If I hadn’t recently seen my first love again — live and in the flesh — only to realize that what I needed, more than anything, was to move forward. If I hadn’t felt hopeful enough to try.

Spence and I probably wouldn’t have met if he hadn’t gone into a physics program in college, eventually meeting the man who would encourage him to apply for an internship in Maryland. If he hadn’t felt comfortable coming to Maryland. If he hadn’t gotten the job, or been able to leave New York, or wanted to join a dating site himself. If he’d had a girlfriend at home or been too broken up by a past that wouldn’t let him move forward, either.

So, well, we do have a story.

And in some ways, it was 24 years in the making.


Us

Engaged