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'Worry' is a disturbing and honest picture of what it's like to be in your 20s

Alexandra Tanner's debut novel centers two sisters in their 20s struggling with the love, anxieties and truths that they hold about each other.
Sasha Fletcher
Alexandra Tanner's debut novel centers two sisters in their 20s struggling with the love, anxieties and truths that they hold about each other.

Your 20s are often painted as the greatest decade, but what's less talked about is how brutal those years can also be. There is pressure to declare who we are, uncertainty about what that even means, and confusion about what we want.

That is the case for two sisters in their 20s at the center of Alexandra Tanner's debut novel, Worry. Jules and Poppy Gold end up becoming roommates in New York City, and they torture each other with their anxieties, despair and truths. It's a portrait of sisterly love that's both hilarious and disturbing.

Tanner spoke to All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang about how she tried to capture the complexities of the decade and sisterhood in this book.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Ailsa Chang: So can we just first talk about the 20s? Like, what is it about that decade that makes it so painful? You just finished the decade, right?

Alexandra Tanner: Yes. I'm in my early 30s now and very glad to be done with my 20s forever. I think they're this just super pressurized time where you feel like, you know, your early 20s, you're on your own for the first time, you're out of college, you feel like, "Here I am, I've arrived in my life." But often you haven't arrived in your life and you don't know who you are and you're still a child, really.

Chang: In the middle of this existential dread that is the 20s are your characters Jules and Poppy. And let's just talk about the relationship between these two sisters. I mean, it's loving, but it's so messed up. It made me wonder: Were you writing from personal experience there? Do you have a sister?

Tanner: I have a younger sibling. They're non-binary and trans, and they are my favorite person in the entire world. But sometimes a sibling relationship is quite diabolical. It's a very unique relationship in that it's someone you love so intensely and know so well – you think. There's this huge gulf between what you [think you know] of your sibling and what you actually know of your sibling. So I think the core of the novel is the horror of realizing that your sister is a part of you and the bigger horror of realizing your sister is separate from you.

/ Broadside PR
Broadside PR

Chang: Well, even though we're talking about the viciousness between these two sisters, it really, for me, was the mother in this book who was the most cruel. Like, you depict a particularly vicious woman who calls her daughter the disappointment of her life. You also, I noticed, write about these other annoying mommy bloggers out there, and all of that got me thinking: How do you feel about motherhood, Alexandra?

Tanner: I mean, I wrote 300 pages about it and I still can't quite figure it out. And I think that, you know, in the writing of the novel, I kind of endeavored to have the relationship Jules and Poppy have with their mother, which I think it mirrors the relationship they have with each other, and that it's a relationship of deep emotional extremes, deep boundaryless-ness. And that's the thing about family, right? You can say anything to them and they're the people who are always going to be with you.

Chang: You hope.

Tanner: You hope. But there's a huge responsibility in that to recognize that you have to treat other people with care. And that saying something like, "You are the disappointment of my life," in a moment of deep emotional stress, they're going to remember that for the rest of their lives. That's not a statement you can just walk back. And I think, mothers, daughters, you go through these cycles of being there for each other and not being there for each other and wounding each other and then being the only person in the world who can lift someone up from, you know, a breakup, getting fired, a devastation. That's the person you want to reach out to.

Chang: Why set this book in 2019, by the way? Because for me, you know, it's so specifically not the present day, but also not that long ago. So what was it about the cusp of the pandemic that you wanted to remind us about?

Tanner: When I look back on 2019, it was this year that felt really normal until all of a sudden it didn't. And I remember there was this period, especially toward the end of the year, where it started to feel like things were about to hit the fan in this really big, scary way. And maybe that's a little bit of an anachronistic thing to say. But now when we look back on it, it was the last year of a chapter in our collective narrative about the world and about so many of our individual lives. And it just had this bonkers energy that I really wanted to try to capture.

Chang: You know, loneliness became such a theme during the pandemic, but you remind us that there was a lot of loneliness before the pandemic.

Tanner: Everybody around the world was lonely in 2019, too. You sort of thought things were about as bad as they could get, you know, politically, socially, whatever. And then it got so much worse.

Chang: Well, I want to end this interview where I started. What do you hope current 20-something-year-olds come away with after reading your book? What do you want to tell them?

Tanner: You're going to strive, you're going to suffer. It's all going to be OK. You're going to make it even if you only make it with a percentage of yourself that is far less than you thought you would carry on to the other side of it.

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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
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.