Love, Belonging, and New York City in Jessica Lott's 'The Rest of Us'
Novelist Jessica Lott gives her narrator, Terry, one of the greatest gifts a person could ever ask for: a second chance. The Rest of Us (Simon and Schuster) opens up with the New York Times obituary of one Rudolf N. Rhinehart, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, and it’s not long before we find out our genuine, relatable narrator had a brief but passionate relationship with the esteemed ex-professor during her junior year in college. Fifteen years later, after reading his obituary, Terry runs into her former flame—who is very much alive—in a department store in SoHo.
The two reconnect, and what follows is one of the most refreshingly mature portrayals of love in recent memory. Contrasted with a literary culture that gorges on steamy vampire sex, The Rest of Us presents a more realistic—and consequently more heartfelt—look at the highs and lows of a relationship, without any unwelcome glamour. The protagonists are not two hormonal 16-year-olds, but a middle-aged photographer and an unhappily married intellectual with a head full of white hair. And the result is satisfyingly intimate.
Lott sheds light on the relationship of Terry and “Rhinehart” (as Terry affectionately—if eccentrically—calls him) from yesteryear in short, expository flashbacks, and the continuous interplay between past and present provides the ideal platform for intricate character development. We learn about their unsurprisingly awkward dates at a faculty cocktail party or in a college dorm, while a pair of present-day dinner parties makes the two of them feel equally as uncomfortable. The Rest of Us proves the age-old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But that’s not to say that even an independent 35-year-old Brooklynite doesn’t have some growing to do as well. And that, fellow lit-lovers, is a quite a pleasure to behold.
If Lott raises eyebrows by rooting her novel in the relationship between a college student and a professor, she manages to deftly sweep any detractors under the rug by giving both Terry and Rhinehart such emotionally nuanced personalities that they defy any preconceived expectations about such a relationship. (Besides, if we’re being technical, they started seeing each other the summer before Rhinehart began his post at the college.) Rhinehart’s artistic and intellectual self-consciousness makes him both too old and too young for his age; meanwhile, Terry’s sudden professional achievements and the rekindling of her connection to Rhinehart expose life as a series of never-ending crossroads.
But the book is so much more than just Terry and Rhinehart, even in the realm of relationships, and the love between Terry and her childhood friend/former college roommate/current adulthood commiserator is just as complex. Hallie battles her own demons throughout the novel, and even when she turns her marriage into a bona fide train wreck, it’s still impossible to look away.
A New York City resident herself, Lott captures the unique bustle of the city perfectly, as if the backdrop itself were another character. In Terry and Hallie’s early post-college days sharing an apartment in New York, the two would thirst for night on the town, for “entry into the invisible New York that [we] had heard about.” High on their own youth, the girls would end up nursing pricey drinks and painful hangovers while feeling, amidst it all, “deliriously happy.” Lott describes the spirited optimism that accompanies a subway ride into Manhattan along with the paranoid fear of brushing by a pick-pocket. She captures the belittling feeling of failing in a city where everyone else seems to be succeeding, and the astonishing excitement of bumping into an old friend on the street, experiencing a brief flash of belonging in a vast, often terrifyingly strange, city of millions.
The plot of The Rest of Us doesn’t exactly thrill, but with characters like these, it doesn’t need to. We become as engrossed by the everyday lives of Terry, Rhinehart, Hallie, and others as if they were old friends of ours as well.