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Jenny Xie tackles a fraught mother-daughter relationship in novel 'Holding Pattern'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's a familiar story - a young adult flailing as they attempt to navigate adult life decides to move home back to the safety of the parental nest. Well, a new novel takes that familiar story and turns it on its head. It's called "Holding Pattern." It's the story of Kathleen Cheng, who has just been dumped by her boyfriend. She wants to drop out of grad school. So she moves home, moves back in with her mom to find someone she barely recognizes. The author is Jenny Xie. Welcome.

JENNY XIE: Hi, Mary Louise. I'm so excited to be here.

KELLY: All right. You open the book with the two of them in a bridal boutique because Marissa, the mom, has just gotten engaged. Set the scene for us.

XIE: So Kathleen and Marissa have had a fraught relationship. When Kathleen was growing up, Marissa really leaned on her for emotional support as her own marriage was falling apart. She was depressed. She was drinking. She was really homesick for China. And Kathleen has gone away and now come home, and she's at a crossroads in her life. And there's been a huge rupture in that she's flailing from her academic track. The relationship that she was in has broken apart. And now she finds herself sort of at the inverse of the usual wedding narrative where she's preparing for her mom's wedding.

KELLY: Yeah.

XIE: And her mom is completely unrecognizable. And she - Kathleen thinks of it as, like, Marissa 2.0 in that she's drinking green juice and running up hills and rock climbing. And the person that she wanted to hold accountable kind of isn't there anymore.

KELLY: So, Kathleen, she's back home. She's back under Mom's roof. She's not entirely happy about this. She has no idea what's coming next. And she spots a job and applies, and the job is certified cuddle provider. Explain.

XIE: This is something that I found when I, in my own life, was looking for a summer job. I had never heard of professional cuddling before, but it exists. And it is a job where you platonically cuddle a stranger, and that is the service. And it fulfills a need that a lot of people have - that, actually, all of us have - for skin contact and touch. It's really good for you across the board - mentally, physically, emotionally. And for some reason, it's just not readily available as a way of caretaking.

KELLY: The company that you invented, Midas Touch, on their app, they have a description of, like, what you might be signing up for and different holds to try. Would you give us a sample?

XIE: Yeah, absolutely. (Reading) We all deserve to take a load off after a long day of pounding the pavement. For the lap of luxury, one cuddler sits on the couch while the other leans against the armrest and stretches their legs across their partner's lap, conveniently positioning themselves for a foot rub - hint, hint.

So I wrote those, you know, in the voice of this millennially branded company, right? So it's got this weird sheen of, like, cheer.

KELLY: Yeah. It's safe to say that the mom, Marissa, is skeptical when she finds out this is what her daughter is doing for work. And some of that stems - you know, I'm sure is generational. Some of it is cultural. Would you talk about some of the choices that Marissa, the mom, made coming to the U.S. as an immigrant, as a young woman from Shanghai?

XIE: I really wanted to talk about the mother-daughter experience. I think it's such a fraught love and magnificent love, but it's immediately complicated by all the pressures that society puts on girls and women and the narrow roles that they slot them into. And for Kathleen and Marissa, I wanted to add this additional layer of complexity, which is what happens when you're part of an immigrant family. And so when Marissa and Kathleen moved to the States, what essentially happened is that Marissa moved Kathleen into a realm a little bit beyond her understanding because they have completely different understandings of history, different values, different worldviews. And so everything that they would have to navigate as mother and daughter is compounded by this sort of inscrutability and unknowability. And part of that is, what does success look like? And what are different avenues and ways of being? And for Kathleen, this cuddle experiment is completely beyond what her mom can stomach.

KELLY: Yeah. In the case of your characters, they spend most of the novel not talking or talking past each other. And then finally, near the end, Marissa says something that's so kind and also true. She tells her daughter, you're good at helping people. And you felt these two women seeing each other and really hearing each other. Where do you hope they go from there? - because none of the things that have divided them in past have gone away.

XIE: It's not a neat ending, and probably some folks will be frustrated by that. But I don't think that's true to life. I don't think you come to a perfect understanding ever, and especially not with your mother. And what I hope for Kathleen and Marissa is that they start to see, as you said, a little bit beyond the narratives that have been so ingrained about each other. I think, as a mother and daughter, what can happen because you've known each other for so long and, you know, been fit into a certain framework, you can start to travel the same narratives, and everything that you're learning can kind of lock into that narrative. And it's really hard to actually see the other person wholly for who they are. And for Kathleen and Marissa in the book, I think a couple ruptures happen that allow them to see a little bit outside of that frame. And moving forward, you get the sense that things will open up and they'll come to better understandings about each other and, because they're so bound, that that will become better understandings about themselves.

KELLY: And explain the title - "Holding Pattern."

XIE: It's really descriptive of where Kathleen is in her life, and it also touches on these themes of touch, connection and intimacy that run throughout the book and the way that she's using her experiences with cuddling to rethink some of her relationships and especially her relationship with her mom.

KELLY: Yeah. That all makes total sense. I was also thinking about the - holding onto the past and the patterns, for better or worse, that we get into in relationships. And that also, as you've just laid out, runs so clearly through the book between Marissa, her mom and all of the other characters.

XIE: Yes. It's so easy to keep doing what you've been doing. And I think it needs something really disruptive to force you out of that. But a silver lining of having your life blow up is that you get to reorient yourself and figure out if - you know, if the direction you were going in is really the direction you want to be going in or if it wasn't just something that you were doing by momentum.

KELLY: Well, here's to silver linings, and congrats on the book.

XIE: Thank you so much.

KELLY: That's Jenny Xie. Her debut novel is titled "Holding Pattern."

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "SLOW BURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.