The Spectacular

A Novel


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September 14, 2021 | ISBN 9780593210871

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About the Book

Three generations of women strive for real freedom in this startling, provocative novel exploring sexuality, gender, and maternal ambivalence, from the acclaimed author of The Best Kind of People.

“In the best books, characters feel like my friends, but with the mothers of The Spectacular, they came to feel like my family.”—Torrey Peters, author of Detransition, Baby

It’s 1997 and Missy is a cellist in an indie rock band on tour across America. At twenty-two years old, she gets on stage every night and plays the song about her absent mother that made the band famous. As the only girl in the band, she’s determined to party just as hard as everyone else, loving and leaving a guy in every town. But then she meets a tomboy drummer who is hard to forget, and a forgotten flap of cocaine strands her at the border.

Fortysomething Carola is just surfacing from a sex scandal at the yoga center where she has been living when she sees her daughter, Missy, for the first time in ten years—on the cover of a music magazine.

Ruth is eighty-three and planning her return to the Turkish seaside village where she spent her childhood. But when her granddaughter, Missy, winds up crashing at her house, she decides it’s time that the strong and stubborn women in her family find a way to understand one another again.

In this sharply observed novel, Zoe Whittall captures three very different women who each struggle to build an authentic life. Definitions of family, romance, gender, and love will radically change as they seek out lives that are nothing less than spectacular.
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Listen to a sample from The Spectacular

Praise for The Spectacular

“Whittall’s knockout novel is a multigenerational riot of grrrlhood and womanhood, a brisk and wistful tour through the ambivalence of responsibility.”Oprah Daily
The Spectacular is an homage to womanhood, motherhood, sexuality, and queerness as it chronicles the lives of three ferociously strong protagonists who are wildly different from one another.”Associated Press

“Zoe Whittall’s taut novel The Spectacular has all the trappings to become the season’s dishiest read. It’s also a gem of literary fiction. . . . In Whittall’s smart and capable hands, these unconventional women are given the space to experience their full, complicated lives.”—BookPage

“An occasionally melancholy often darkly comedic story from a sharply talented writer, The Spectacular is a vibrant homage to living life on your own terms.”—PureWow

“Whittall addresses motherhood and autonomy in ways I’ve never seen done before. A fascinating stunner of a novel, The Spectacular is exactly that: spectacular!”—Kristen Arnett, author of With Teeth

“This book will leave you with a brilliant roar inside your chest—Whittall’s prose is afire with the most complex and daring forms of empathy.”—Alissa Nutting, author of Made for Love

“Just imagine this book dog-eared, spine-cracked, pages limp from use, living by your bedside—because from the moment you open The Spectacular, you’ll happily succumb to a totally absorbing contemporary epic with characters and social worlds that are Edith Wharton–level dimensional but as relatable as your own uncannily recognizable self.”—Jordy Rosenberg, author of Confessions of the Fox

“This is a novel about how we learn to define who we are, about the courage to make decisions nobody will understand, and about the profound complexities of maternal ambivalence. Both expansive and intimate, wild and tender, I loved it.”—Ashley Audrain, author of The Push

“A daring and beautiful examination of motherhood, The Spectacular left me breathless.”—Robin Wasserman, author of Mother Daughter Widow Wife

“Both raw and refined, The Spectacular is an insightful, poignant exploration of family and relationships from one of my favorite writers working today. A multigenerational story that’s fully alive.”—Iain Reid, author of I’m Thinking of Ending Things

“Fearless, challenging, epic—these are all words I have been using to describe The Spectacular. Fiction often teaches us truths, and The Spectacular does just that, laying bare the ways in which women are defined and the ways in which women can define themselves.”—Jen Sookfong Lee, author of The Conjoined
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The Spectacular

Chapter 3


We are dripping in America by the middle of the tour and feeling pretty good about ourselves. I’m in an airfield outside Baltimore, playing my f***ing heart out. The crowds are stomping. Hands crushing beer cups. Arms raised in group awe. When the audience is with us, we own them. Their love is embarrassing and beautiful but also crazy to fathom. Here we are, the Swearwolves, a bunch of music-school geeks, but now we’re all so f***able. And I love us. My tits through a thin T-shirt that reads the Bite tour are on the cover of Spin magazine. I’m not even sick to death of half the new songs yet. When we reach the end of the set and Billy says our names, introducing us one by one, I fall in love with everyone, even when Tom prolongs the drum solo to a masturbatory length.

And there is James. I want James. He’s in the front row, which is where I first met him. He’s that record store guy at every show, hanging around so much he’s genuinely friends with the band. He has an adoring face, a hot interrogation light, but a flattering one. His hair is golden, curled downbelow his shoulders. But he hasn’t been front and center since New York last year.

Near the end of our set, the crowd is a hungry mass and we are feeding them. I’m playing rhythm guitar for this song, and I kick out my leg toward James. He gives me a wink. I can feel the way he likes to wrap one hand around my hair and pull gently, and then with force. As we hold each other’s gaze, I’m briefly alight, floating above the sold-out crowd.

The gender split in the major live music scene is a little like the army, a woman here and there, but mostly you are on your own. There’s no one to borrow a tampon from, and the girls my bandmates hook up with aren’t ever around long enough to get too deep. You have to watch your back, or try to make the most of it. I didn’t want to be prey, and so I became a type of predator, a slinking she-wolf bathed in gin and audience adoration with a boy in nearly every port. The boy in Baltimore was James, though he’d been my East Village hookup for about a year and a half. James rips off his T-shirt. He screams the chorus. He bangs his fist on the edge of the stage. The teenage girls in the front row don’t know what to make of his frenzy.

I was a shy kid in high school. I didn’t even try a sip of beer until after my eighteenth birthday. And here I am, a few years after graduation, taking a full-year break from the conservatory, and there’s my photo in Rolling Stone, backstage with Kim Deal at a festival. Our first solo tour feels like the endless present. People aren’t just recognizing Billy when we pull into rest stops, or in the aisles of CVS picking up hand lotion and condoms. They know who I am. I hear my own voice over the radio sometimes. It’s a rush. I get cocky. We all do. It’s so easy to see a clear story in retrospect, but in the middle of it, all I feel is hands and mouths, Sharpies thrust forward to sign T-shirts, the sound of applause and the birdlike whoops of those fans in a moment of transcendence, the taste of beer and lemon Snapple, the cold hotel pillow at the end of the night. It’s the middle of the orgy, and all we have are feelings, so many feelings, and all of them colossal, creeping through our bodies and messing with our minds.

I play each song without thinking about the notes. Some songs on the cello, others on guitar. I have a tattoo across the knuckles on my left hand that reads more. My father told me it was my first word. In these moments onstage, I am more body than brain, and I don’t need my brain to play each note flawlessly. My mind is concerned mostly with two things: how many songs are left before I can see James, and the fat crow sitting on the amplifier. The crow is looking at me too intently. I give him a pacifying nod.

Crows will always remember your face. If you throw an empty coffee cup at a crow, it tells its buddies. They look after their own. They can live for a hundred years. I didn’t f*** with the crow. Tom did. By accident. Tom’s not an asshole; he just didn’t see the crow lounging on the rim of the dumpster before he threw the cup. He’s got drummer arms, so the cup went too fast, too hard. Surprised them both.

It stopped raining just before our set. A rainbow cradled in thousands of upturned palms. Shirts were stuck to their chests with rainwater and sweat. I look at my left hand. It’s moving along the frets again. If you do something a million times you’ll just keep doing it. Even when you’re gone. Like when you pull up to your house and don’t remember driving there.

Billy stands with his arms stretched open, like he’s trying to embrace the whole audience, his eyes closed. Rolling Stone magazine hailed this song as the “anthem of the year” and I can see hearts swelling. I wrote the song. Billy hates that.

Tom likes it, he says it keeps Billy humble.

Being in a band is kind of like group dating. If everyone is selfish at the same time, it doesn’t work. We can’t all be the deadbeat dad. I try not to be the mom, just because I’m the girl, and I’d never be able to compete with Tom, who moms us the best. He reminds us to eat dark green vegetables, get at least four hours of sleep a night. Last week in Albany we blanched fists of broccoli in chipped Travelodge coffee mugs with hot water meant for tea, coffee filters tented on top to seal in the heat. I ripped open a small paper packet of salt with my teeth for seasoning. The half-torn packet salted the sweaty change in my back pocket for days.
I come back to the song, now almost over, as my watermelon gum fades of its flavor and goes soft and pink in my mouth. It was great until it wasn’t, and I go to spit it out but will it poison the crow? I can’t chance it. My T-shirt smells like a gamy blend of sweat and lemon Speed Stick. Touring means bacteria is always at war with heat and fabric. I started the tour with shiny-new pink sneakers, limited edition Converse One Stars, and now they’re cracked from overuse, and one heel of my combat boots is worn down so I’ve been walking with a slight limp from a nail slowly moving up through the sole.

The crowd always grows taller for the final song. Off to the side, on top of the Marshall stacks, three more crows appear. I didn’t throw the cup: I try to say that with my eyes. Animals can read emotion. The crows’ feathers seem to puff up, like a group of guys at last call looking for a fight. Birds make me nervous. So many feathers and tiny bones, nothing of substance. They’re a gang. They’re after us. It was my job to collect the eggs in the henhouse when I was a kid. They saw my little hands for what they were—perfect for pecking. I never got over it.

Tom catches my eye, gives me a You okay? I give my head a nod toward the crows. Now they are six. He laughs.

He mouths, You’re crazy.

I yell, “You’ll see.”

I turn back to the crowd. James and I hold eye contact. He rubs one hand against his beard, winks. Bookended by two openhearted girls, singing their guts out. The last time we met up was in New York City last year, opening for another band at the Bowery Ballroom. He’d told me he was moving to Baltimore.

“Baltimore is cheap and full of artists. Houses for sixty thousand dollars!” He yelled this in a triumphant staccato over breakfast at a diner in the East Village where we’d lined up Tylenol, plastic cups of apple juice, and coffee, trying to quell a hangover. I aimed the toe of my right foot toward his lap, a purposeful graze up and down, trying to get him to break. Show it in your face. He refused, though I felt precisely how I was affecting him. Instead, a slow sip of his coffee, eyes locked to mine in a dare. James. He would not break. He could meet me.

“Be my girlfriend,” he said, ragged breath.

The server was my saving grace, gliding over, coffee pot cocked on one hip.


“God yes,” I said, a little too relieved. “But also no, to answer your question. What we have is great.”

“Sure,” he said, but I knew he was hurt.

I’ve always grown bored too quickly. I read the last page of novels first, to know if I should bother. I have a lot of lovers across the country. What’s the point of being a touring musician if your bed, in addition to being unpredictable, is also cold?

James knew that. He worked in a record store. He could get any shy, hot pussy in a cardigan with ironic lapel buttons he wanted. For some reason, he wanted me. That day, anyway.

About the Author

Zoe Whittall
Zoe Whittall is the author of five novels, including the recent bestseller The Fake, which was longlisted for the Toronto Book Award. The New York Times called her fourth novel, The Spectacular, a “highly readable testament to the strength of the maternal bond.” Her third novel, The Best Kind of People, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her second novel, Holding Still for as Long as Possible, won a Lambda Literary Award and was an American Library Association’s Stonewall Honor Book. Her debut novel, Bottle Rocket Hearts, won the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize. She is also a Canadian Screen Award–winning TV writer. She lives in Prince Edward County. More by Zoe Whittall
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