I see it in their eyes sometimes, the look of yearning among the aspiring authors I meet at writing conferences. She has all those books, they’re thinking, all those publishing contracts…why not me? Later, when they see me in the bar with well-known agents and editors and authors, that look of yearning turns a whiskey-soaked shade of green.
Oh, Envy, you devious lurker! You urge us to covet others’ bounty, to keep up with all the Joneses, whispering in our ears that we deserve what they have and can’t be happy without it—only to laugh at our pain when we fail. We’re Charlie Brown and envy is Lucy, yanking back the football every time so we end up on our asses in the dirt. Like shame, envy’s other-side-of-the-coin cousin, its goal is to make us feel as shitty about ourselves as possible, the poison all the stronger because we try to hide it.
Of course, we know there’s another side to every Jones’s story. We understand that that behind every closed door lies secrets and bitter truths, that everyone struggles, no matter how rich or thin or popular they are. We know that comparing our lives to others’ is pointless and counter-productive. But envy distracts us like a carnival barker, calling A winner every time! until winning is all we can think about.
Envy caused me the most pain, ironically, when I had so much more. I live a pared-down life now, spending my days in sweats and my big nights out drinking five-dollar drafts, but there was a time with I lived in an enormous suburban house and employed a cleaning service and an interior designer and even a life coach whose job was to help me find more meaning in life. We bought furniture and cars and vacations and clothes and a second home in the mountains, but it was never enough, because someone else always had more.
My summer novel That’s What Frenemies Are For, co-written with Lauren Gershell, is laced with envy, its characters flying ever closer to the sun with wings of wax. Writing it took me back to the pain of feeling less-than in the shadow of others’ fortune. Like main character Julia Summers, I once lived for the approval of others. Everything I did, from getting the kids dressed in the morning to choosing a color at the nail salon, was an exercise in pleasing an imagined audience. Wealthy social predator Julia has always been very good at the game, but—like all good storytellers—Lauren and I stripped her of everything so that she is alone and ashamed when her story really starts. Writing Julia was easy because I’d been there myself.
I bumped into this quote one day on the internet. It dates back three centuries, and doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue—and you should also probably know that the innocent-sounding “kite” is actually a fearsome bird of prey:
Envy feeds on outcast entrails like a kite;
In which foul heap, if any ill lies hid,
She sticks her beak into it, shakes it up,
And hurls it all abroad, that all may view it.
—George Chapman, Bussy D’Ambois
It’s a brilliant metaphor, perfectly capturing our fears. We work so hard to hide our envy—the sick feeling we get when the neighbor pulls into the driveway in her convertible BMW with the “Proud UCLA Mom” bumper sticker, our disgust with all the fuss over our sister-in-law’s amazing weight loss, our crush on the great guy our best friend met online while all the men we meet seem to be living in their moms’ basements. We smile our asses off and compliment, congratulate, and swear that we’re happy for them—and then this big-ass birdcomes along with our secret thoughts hanging from its beak like bloody, rotting roadkill.
Julia Summers’ story is short on carrion birds, but long on wicked Upper East Side ladies-who-lunch drama. It’s already been called “delicious” and “witty” and “clever” and even “a dream come true” and we hope it might find its way into your beach bag. Preorder now and you’ll be the first to have it on July 30th!
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Am I the last person to discover A Man Called Ove? As a former HOA manager (one of my many side-hustle adventures), I found poor Ove’s housing-community travails hilarious, but it was author Fredrick Backman’s perfect-pitch depiction of the ravages of toxic masculinity that had me hooked.
Until next time, friends, I wish you sunny days and a crisp sauvignon blanc. And remember, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
Sofia ~ Sophie