I expected this book to be funny, but I don’t think I quite expected it to move me as much as it did. There’s a Word for That brings disparate family members together in a high-end rehab clinic and, as can be imagined, old hurts are brought to the surface and long-simmering tensions lead to major drama. All of this is prime material for a hilarious sitcom. One can just about imagine the memes that can come from the scene where Marty, a retired LA film producer whose fortune is slowly being eaten away by his long string of girlfriends, realizes that the newest addition to his therapy group in rehab is none other than his ex-wife Bunny Small, a world-renowned children’s book author whom he hasn’t seen in decades. Yet while Tanen does deliver some laugh out loud moments and some delightfully comedic situations, she also takes us deep into the heart of her characters and makes us care.
I love how complex the character are and how nuanced their relationships were with each other. For example, Bunny is estranged from her son Henry. We can’t help but sympathize with Henry, who grew up under the shadow of sharing a name with his mother’s famous hero (when he initially introduces himself to Marty’s daughter Janine, she thinks he’s giving a fake name) and who also has difficulty dealing with his mother’s alcoholism. But by the same token, we also can’t help but feel for Bunny, who, for all her success, is desperately lonely, and wants nothing more than to connect with her son.
I also love the two pairs of sisters with intense rivalries — Marty’s daughters Janine and Amanda, and Amanda’s daughters Hailey and Jaycee. Janine and Hailey are probably the easier to relate to — both grow up being told that their sibling is by far the prettier one, and both feel like they lost out on their parents’ love as a result of this. I love the parallels in their storylines — Janine is a former child star who now struggles to find work and Hailey is determined to become an actress against her mother’s wishes — and I also love how their similarities forge a bond between them. But most of all, I love that Amanda and Jaycee aren’t the stereotypically mean pretty girls. There’s a great moment when Jaycee does something drastic to cover up a mistake Hailey made, and rather than acknowledging her sister’s kindness, Hailey instead resents that after the situation settles down, things seem to work out better for Jaycee than for her. I love that because even though we may more easily relate to Janine and Hailey’s situation, Tanen calls us out on the role we can sometimes play in causing the injustices and hurts we experience.
Less successful is the romance between Janine and Henry. It was cute, and kinda sweet, but it also fell short when compared to the emotional resonance of the other relationships. The family relationships struck me as particularly strong, but I also really like the friendship that develops between Marty and Bunny in rehab. Even though they hadn’t spoken in decades, and there’s little hint of a romantic spark, I love how they very clearly still care for each other.
Tanen keeps the story pretty lighthearted throughout. As a result, some of the relationships and emotional notes don’t quite go as deep as they could have. But I think it still worked overall. I really enjoyed getting to know these characters. I loved watching them grow together, and deal with all the stuff life tends to throw at us. At its heart, this book is about family, and while it may seem pithy to say, the story is a moving exploration of the ways in which families can break apart for years yet pull together when it really matters.
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.