Laura Zigman’s fiction has always drawn directly from life. Her 1997 debut novel, “Animal Husbandry,” stemmed from a time when Zigman, devastated by the end of a relationship, also found herself in a bizarre living situation. “When I was writing that book, I was heartbroken,” she said when we spoke via phone. “I was also living with a roommate who was this incredible womanizer, and I couldn’t escape the fact that it was a hilarious kind of irony, this whole plotline unfolding.”
That book was made into the 2001 rom-com “Someone Like You,” and three more Zigman novels followed. But in 2006, the same year that her fourth novel was published and her son was 6, Zigman was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It was one thing after another after that,” she said. “My mother got cancer, then my father. In the back of my mind I assumed that I’d just keep writing, but it was pretty clear after my surgery that I wasn’t writing fiction anymore.”
Instead, she discovered a new writing outlet. “While I was recovering, I watched a lot of Food Network. In between Ina Garten, I caught a show about a television matchmaker, Patti Novak: I blogged about it, and the producer of the show contacted me and asked me to work on a book with her.” More ghost-writing projects followed, including books with politician Wendy Davis and comedian Eddie Izzard.
Meanwhile, glimmers of fiction fodder shone through. In 2012, Zigman worked on a screenplay, “a kind-of road-trip movie.” It didn’t sell, but certain scenes stuck with Zigman, and the Cambridge-based writer’s new novel (her fifth), “Separation Anxiety,” is the entertaining, thought-provoking result.
In the opening pages, Zigman’s protagonist, Judy Vogel, is Marie Kondo-ing her basement and grappling with life’s myriad questions: Why is her 13-year-old son, Teddy, so withdrawn? How much longer can Judy and her husband, Gary, a “snackologist” at a We Work-type building, live together while being secretly separated? How will they make enough money to cover Teddy’s Montessori tuition? Years after producing a super-successful book that became a PBS animated series, Judy now finds herself piecing together a living by generating content for Well/er, a health website, where she’s the oldest employee by far.
While ruminating on life’s oddities, Judy comes across something that sparks joy: an old baby sling. She pops it over her head and tucks Charlotte, the family dog, inside. Despite others’ reactions, keeping Charlotte so close provides an element of relief to Judy as she navigates the vagaries of Teddy’s head of school, Mr. Noah, and his “aggressively annoying Montessori man bun”; as she home-hosts members of a puppet troupe; and as she tries to come to terms with the fact that her best friend, Glenn, is dying.
If “Separation Anxiety” has ineluctable threads of grief running through it, it also imparts a life-affirming vigor. This is partly thanks to Glenn’s wise, cut-to-the-chase ways, but also because Judy is a natural comedian and Zigman has gifted her with a fiercely singular voice.
Racing to get Teddy to school, Judy knows she looks “like a Jules Feiffer sketch of modern frantic parenthood with my giant hair and furrowed worry-brow behind the wheel.” In a scene in which she’s trying to fit an oversized plant into her car, she realizes “that the orchid won’t fit upright in the trunk (too tall) or lie flat in the back (too delicate). The only way … is to open the sunroof and drive with the plant sticking way out of the top of the car, like a scene out of a Dr. Seuss movie.” And when she’s Skyping with her Well/er colleagues, Judy imagines the scene once she logs off: “I’m certain that the second the call is over all the twenty-year-olds whisper sweetly among themselves about how I remind them of their moms. I’m certain because that actually happened once before we all got disconnected.”
The Well/er scenes have a real-life inspiration. “In 2013, I wrote for a really cool start-up in Boston,” Zigman explained. “It was the first time I had an office job since I had left Random House in the mid-'90s, and everyone was at least 20 or 30 years younger than me. I’d just turned 50, and I still had an AOL account.” She was also writing for animated videos on a platform called Xtranormal. “There were these characters that you could write a script for, and they would speak your lines. I made more than 70 of these shorts and one was about a Prius: I was in the parking lot of my son’s Montessori school and I almost got run over by a Prius because it was so quiet. That scene in ‘Separation Anxiety’ with the Prius, that came directly from that earlier piece. Nothing,” said Zigman — and you can hear the smile in her voice — “is ever wasted.”
If the book nails life’s more challenging moments, it also captures an astonishing level of empathy. “By the time you get into your 40s and beyond,” said Zigman, “you’re dealing with loss: you have a lot of empathy for the people who are helping you through it, and for the people you know who are going through it themselves.” It was the support she received from family and friends that was the real engine driving the new book: “I wanted to write something that reflected the struggle of middle age and the tough times that people face; I wanted the kindness of others to come through, too.”
And with Judy Vogel sharing her story, Laura Zigman achieves just that.
by Laura Zigman
Ecco, 288 pages, $26.99
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.