Annie Adams is just about to turn thirty-two and she’s finally found happiness. As a syndicated travel columnist, she gets paid to visit the world’s most interesting places. She’s contentedly living with her longtime boyfriend Nick in Los Angeles, whose career as a film director is finally taking off. So, even though watching Roman Holiday has seemingly been linked to some of the worst moments of her life, when she has the chance to sit down and treat herself to her favorite movie, she doesn’t hesitate.
As it turns out, the Roman Holiday curse is still very much in effect: Within hours of watching it, Annie is confronted by Nick’s arrival home after a meeting with his therapist (a.k.a. “futures counselor”) who has advised Nick to break up with Annie so that he can pursue a love interest from his past. Just like that, Annie’s perfect world has crumbled.
Annie is devastated. Her best friend Jordan, who also happens to be Nick’s sister, begs Annie to join her on a trip to Italy, but Annie decides that for once she’s in no shape to travel. Instead, she puts on her favorite yellow dress and heads out to her neighborhood bar for a drink, attempting to salvage her dignity and prove to herself (and Jordan) that she can act like the opposite of herself during this time of emotional crisis. When she arrives, Annie notices that her favorite bartender isn’t behind the bar. Instead, it’s a friendly, curly-haired chef named Griffin who immediately charms Annie with his easy banter and lobster scrambled eggs.
Within months, the two are married and relocated to Griffin’s hometown in rural Massachusetts, where Griffin is opening his own restaurant. Annie is prepared to exchange her peripatetic lifestyle for a more authentic and grounded existence. When they get there, Annie makes a few discoveries: She’s got more family than she bargained for, Griffin is haunted by his own romantic past, and Williamsburg is achingly cold most of the year. Suddenly she’s not sure if she’s cut out for this new life.
Laura Dave’s third novel is the story of an independent young woman trying to redefine herself when everything she thought she knew is thrown into question. In Annie Adams, Dave has created a witty and sympathetic romantic heroine searching for home on her own terms. Warm, funny, and relatable, The First Husband is full of wit and insight about the complexity of modern love.
Laura Dave is the author of the acclaimed novels The Divorce Party and London is the Best City in America. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Glamour and on NPR’s All Things Considered. A New York native, she now lives in Los Angeles.
Q. The title of this book is provocative, in that it suggests that Annie may eventually divorce and take a “second” husband. How did you settle on this title, and what does it mean to you?
For me, my work on The First Husband started with a question: How do we avoid living our lives in reaction; how do we operate from a place of agency? As I was contemplating this, I imagined a conversation between two women—very much like the characters of Annie and Jordan—who were discussing how one of them married quickly after a traumatic breakup, perhaps, in part, to convince the world she was okay.
Which brings me to the question of how I settled on the title The First Husband. As I was contemplating this conversation, I imagined Jordan trying to convince Annie to leave her quickie and reactive union by arguing the point: “He’s just your first husband.” I wanted to take a look at the irony of that ideology and, in the process, have an opportunity to begin to answer my question about how we become proactive in our own happiness.
The First Husband title is also a bit of a wink to Nick, who Annie thought was going to be her life partner. So many of us, like Annie, have such serious relationships before marriage that this person we end up parting with is almost like a first husband or first wife. I liked that the title could speak to that as well.
Q. From the very beginning of the book we learn that Annie has a bad history with Roman Holiday. What role does this superstitious belief play in her life? Why did you choose Roman Holiday as Annie’s unlucky film?
Let me tackle the element of superstition first. The fact is—for better or worse—Roman Holiday has been involved with several traumatic incidents in Annie’s life and, in the process, it has taken on the power inanimate objects sometimes have for us. Like a lucky baseball shirt that a fan will wear all season, or a penny found on tails… We know rationally that these objects should have no impact on external events, yet who says belief has anything to do with being rational? I think sometimes it’s comforting to believe we know the root of our luck—or our unrest—so we feel like we can control it. This is certainly the case with Annie, who can’t help but feel that if she keeps Roman Holiday off her television screen, she will keep herself safe.
As for why I chose Roman Holiday as Annie’s unlucky film, I have a variety of reasons. For one, Roman Holiday is the ultimate romantic movie—full of hope and fantasy. I liked the idea that someone could associate such a sweet story—starring Audrey Hepburn at her loveable best—with such turmoil. There is also a thematic connection: Annie and Hepburn’s character in the movie both think they want to escape from their lives. But when you look deeper, they are each actually looking for the opposite of escape—they are looking for love and belonging. I wanted to highlight that connection.
Q. How well did you know Annie before you started to write? Did you understand her completely, or did the process of writing this book parallel her journey of getting to know herself?
There are certain elements of Annie that I knew intimately before I started writing The First Husband. As close to the vest as I have Annie keeps things, she inadvertently shares a lot about her fears and her hopes, right from the first introduction. I loved this paradox about her: the fact that as much as she has carefully organized her life to keep people at a safe distance, she also can’t help but cave to her deeper desire for closeness. I liked knowing I was going to watch her bridge that divide.
At the same time, Annie surprised me constantly as I was working on the book. And I did, ultimately, feel like writing this book paralleled her journey in many important ways. Most notably, I was so pleased with where she ended up. I was so pleased for her to have such a truly happy ending.
Q. Throughout the book, you interject insights Annie has gleaned from writing her travel column “Checking Out.” What inspired you to include these passages? What have you personally written about travel?
Annie has been living her life for a long time according to her personal dictum of how to approach travel: explore, escape, repeat. Part of Annie’s journey is to find her way to something more rewarding—which has very little to do with her typical exit strategies. Instead, she needs to do the hard work of figuring out the answer to a far more complicated question: How do I stay still long enough to build something that counts? As Annie stumbles toward the answer that is right for her, she begins to live a life far richer and more expansive than the one she imagined for herself. The column provides the opportunity to showcase this shift.
As for my personal experience writing travel pieces, I do have some. From 2008 – 2010, I wrote a column for Cosmo Italy that often involved travel and certainly encouraged me to think about the places I was seeing in different ways. This was very useful in helping me think about Annie’s motivations.
Q. In Griffin and Annie, you’ve written the ideal whirlwind romance. What do you think makes a great love story?
With all the time I spend exploring this in my work, I can’t believe I have such a succinct answer. But here it is. Two people who make each other better.
Q. Annie is obsessed with homes—namely, other people’s homes, which she photographs when she travels. What role does her unsettled life play in this obsession?
I once had a writing teacher who wisely said: “We write about the things we are trying to figure out. The things that elude us.” This idea really resonated with me. And I think it is certainly why Annie photographs what she does. After such an unsettled childhood—and self-chosen unsettled adulthood—she is trying to figure out what different homes look like. What she would want hers to look like. Which, of course, is the first necessary step to that kind of creation.
Q. This novel seems to be about the struggle over potentially conflicting desires to develop a career, commit to a relationship, and choose a home. How did you decide to write about this particular conflict?
Over the course of writing The First Husband, one question kept coming to the forefront of my mind: How do we decide what really matters to us? With so many options of how our lives can look, we often create what I call dabbling lives: lives where we give 60 percent of ourselves to several things and never fully commit to any of them. At first, this can seem more comforting—we’re not closing any doors; we’re not missing out on any opportunities. But, at least in terms of my own life, I’ve realized that the full level of commitment to a few things—even if it means closing the door on others—is the primary way to feel fulfilled.
But what a hard road! To close doors, to say good-byes. To stand up and say this is what matters to me. Watching Annie do that—especially in an unconventional way—was my favorite part of working on The First Husband. Or, I should say, readers telling me they’ve garnered insight into their own lives in following Annie’s journey—that is my favorite part.
Q. The book’s ending, with the exchange between Jordan and Annie, almost suggests that there could be a sequel. What might the future hold for these characters?
Happiness, I hope. And a lifetime of having each other to count on, which keeps them both grounded and true to whom they most want to be.
Q. When Nick returns to find Annie in Massachusetts, he makes a surprisingly romantic gesture. How did you decide which man Annie would end up with? And what difficulties did you encounter when making this decision?
I’m going to sidestep the question of how I decided who Annie would end up with, but only to say something I truly believe: Annie was deciding which Annie she was going to end up with. First and foremost, this was what she was doing. The men represented the two paths she could take: was she going to choose the man who made her feel less-than? Or the one who challenged her to be her best self because of the wonderful and scary things their relationship demanded? The answer would have a large impact for her, so in choosing, I had a lot to reconcile for her.
And in terms of Nick’s big romantic gesture, it speaks to my theory about the big romantic gesture, which I think is far less loving than the small romantic gestures which happen on an everyday level when you are really showing up for your partner. But poor Nick. He is still a complicated one for me in that he does what so many of us do: he makes the needed changes, but when they aren’t needed anymore. It pains me to see it.
Q. In the end, Annie is forced to choose not just between Nick and Griffin, but between her old career and Griffin. How will she feel about this choice in the long run?
My ultimate goal for Annie was a simple one: I wanted her to move closer to her authentic self. Ironically, for many of us who, like Annie, spend our lives looking toward horizons we want to explore next, this is often the hardest trek we have to take. Because it involves stillness, and compliance, and often sacrifice.
Annie ultimately sacrifices not only her job (which wasn’t right for her in the way it once was), but what the job afforded her, which was the chance to hold onto every possibility that her life could be moving in any direction at any time. I think she will be happy in the long run to realize that she actually took the most rewarding road she could take. Because—regardless of her relationship or her newfound home or what might be a far more rewarding career to come—it was the road that led her closer to who she most wants to be.